Paean to The Ones With No Names


HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

Lest we forget


OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit

Three little words to give you goosebumps: Dis ek, Anna.

Girl alone: Charlene Brouwer plays Anna.

Girl alone: Charlene Brouwer plays Anna.

The filthy scourge of paedophilia has crossed our awareness so frequently and in so much detail in fiction and fact, history and the news, at times lascivious, at times clinical, that it has become humdrum. The film version of Dis ek, Anna (It’s me, Anna) is a fresh and earnest piece of work, bruised by predictability, but enhanced with a crafted texture that boasts moments of sheer directorial poetry.

In the aftermath of years of abuse by her step-father, the central eponymous character played by Charlene Brouwer embraces a narrative which is almost numbingly predictable, from the first still and the way in which a cut-price Barbie doll in a roadside pitstop makes Anna distressingly mesmerised, until the court’s final decision.

But more than the tale of a young girl molested and raped repeatedly by an older man, it is one that sears the underbelly of bullying: casting into relief how a so-believed perfect child becomes hated by her peers, but also, how the very idea of sex is portrayed as poisonous from within a set of Calvinist values, specific to a particular culture.

While drawing from South Africa’s top echelon theatrical performers in Afrikaans, including Marius Weyers, Nicola Hanekom and Elize Cawood in key roles, it features some absolutely astonishing cameos, by the likes of Ilse Klink, Dawid Minnaar and Elton Landrew. While they’re focused on for maybe 12 minutes throughout the whole film, they lend the piece such a sense of local colour and authenticity, they are haunting and pivotal to the tale.

Dis ek, Anna, enfolds a tale of abuse within a tale of abuse in a way that feels almost too neat, wrapping a goodly dose of advocacy in its folds: it’s tied together with the presence of Weyers as an elderly investigating officer with a mission, and there are aspects of the film that might evoke the British crime miniseries Trial and Retribution, from the 1990s, directed in part by Aisling Walsh, in terms of the different unfolding compartments of the tale. Indeed, there are many threads to the work, most of which are resolved and are interwoven around South Africanisms and other truisms, but in all of these occasionally stumbling ways, it yields a memorable punch.

And while the film is not flawless as a production, there are elements to it, which enable it to sing: the unfathomable horror of child rape and how on earth a community deals with the perpetrator of such a deed is held up in the light of Anna’s tale; the dovetailing of an Afrikaans-speaking, church-going level of blatant hypocrisy with the rawness of the relaying of a similar tale of woe from within an informal settlement are placed on a kind of moral scale which provokes thought.

While some of the lines articulated are not only silly and disrespectful to the bones of the story – and the advocate’s blonde assistant’s facial expressions lend a bizarre interpretative foolishness to the court case, and while there’s a pervading pallor in tone and personality of most of the white cast – the coloured and black cast members inject an unequivocal sense of real life into the piece – there’s an overriding value in this film which makes these errors forgivable and the piece, while slightly too long and in several respects begging for more succinct editing, is engaging.

  • Dis Ek, Annais directed by Sara Blecher and performed by Hykie Berg, Izel Bezuidenhout, Charlene Brouwer, Elize Cawood, Nicola Hanekom, Ilze Klink, Elton Landrew, Eduan van Jaarsveldt, Morné Visser, Drikus Volschenk and Marius Weyers. It is produced by Niel van Deventer, Tascha van der Westhuizen and Charlene Brouwer and written by Tertius Kapp, based on the novels Dis ek, Anna and Die staat teen Anna Bruwer by Anchien Troskie and was designed by Jonathan Kovel (photography), Chris Joubert (production), Nicholas Costaras (editor), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Schalk Joubert (music) and Belinda Kruger (casting). Release date: October 23 2015.