Politics and the theatre: Athol Fugard's Playland

Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Athol Fugard's Playland is a show which has recently fallen out of favour in contemporary thatrical circles. Without a professional production for several years now, it is one of Fugard's most directly political plays and deals with intolerance and political extremism in post-Apartheid South Africa. Ahead of Playland's run at the Mumford Theatre, Anglia Ruskin, I spoke to Jack McNamara, director of New Perspectives, a touring theatre company based in the East Midlands, about why he feels now is the best time for a comeback. 

How did the idea to stage Playland come about? Was it something you had always wanted to do or something which feels particularly relevant now?

When I studied drama at university the focus was so much on British theatre, so discovering Fugard was an amazing breath of fresh air.  The spirit, style and energy of it was so un-British, and that really appealed to me. Even as a white African, you can sense his deep connection with the country and people. I always imagined the plays being staged with a kind of charged, dusty quality; the way I imagined those early Market Theatre productions would have been. I spotted Playland at a second hand bookstore shortly after getting the job running a British touring company and knew this was one I wanted to do. It boiled down all of Fugard's major themes to one essential conflict between black and white. It had also somehow manage to slip the radar so there had never been a regional production as far as we could tell, so it felt valid to share it with our audiences.

You've talked about how putting on the play now is especially important in the run-up to the general election, especially since it deals with political extremism and intolerance. What do you think staging Playland can contribute to the debate?

I just think we have to take care of our society and the different elements that make it up. People can fall into some unhealthy ways of talking and thinking about foreigners and otherness, and politicians end up playing on this for support.  I think we need to always remember that it's a small step from intolerance to persecution. Since September 11th there seems to have been a renewed intensity of aggression towards foreignness, linked, like all prejudice, to fear. I remember shortly after those attacks hearing a very middle class British primary school teacher say she felt uncomfortable teaching her Muslim students now as she "didn't want to teach a future suicide bomber how to read and write." Hearing such things I am just aware of how close we are to extreme ways of thinking. Apartheid was put into place by educated, cultured, family-orientated Europeans, not ogres. And now organisations with UKIP have hatred and intolerance at the centre of their thinking but dress it up as a kind of responsible cultural cleanup.

The immigration debate is constantly shifting, never really consistent. I lack the data to offer a water tight immigration policy of my own, but one thing that I do know is that the language used in the immigration debate perpetuates a host of negative, unhelpful  images. I am not using Playland to contribute to a debate but I would like it to show people an extreme state of affairs that is not miles away from must either culturally or ideologically. And if it makes just one person think twice about supporting UKIP I'll be very happy.

Is there a danger in trying to make a play 'relevant'? Do we lose some of the most important and basic elements of the play?

I don't think I would ever actively try and make a play relevant. I would only try and free it from anything that was holding it back from us feeling something today. I think making contemporary connections is natural, but sometimes over emphasising them can be a little crude. Personally I feel that the way to direct a play is to find a way into it, whatever that is. If you need to stick Shakespeare characters in army outfits in order to do that, that's fine. I tend to want to find a way into it that isn't so clearly signposted, but still says something about what is underneath it.

I also think a lot of British theatre is quite frightened of saying things too directly. We consider it bad artistic manners to say what we mean and feel. That's the refreshing thing about Fugard, the emotions and feelings are so raw that people don't bother hiding what they mean. Yet he finds other ways of being subtle, not so much in the language as in the cumulative effect of the drama.

Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

A lot of Playland revolves around very specific moments in South African history. Is there a danger some of it might be lost on a 21st-century British audience?

The conflict presented in the play is generally universal  - it's about society's outcasts and people with demons. But an understanding of what happened in South Africa over that time wouldn't hurt. I think it's important that there is a wide awareness of what happened, and if someone comes to the play not knowing that South Africa was brutally divided for 50 years then I hoe the play prods them to look into that. It was only 20 years ago, so it shouldn't quite be disappearing into the past yet.

In terms of the references to SWAPO, that is a rather specific conflict that I don't imagine all audiences will be familiar with. But I have added a programme note about it and hopefully the action is arranged in such a way that people get the emotional sense of it, if not the historical.

The tour for your play has been unusual in that it has taken in many different rural theatres as well as universities. What do you hope might be gained from putting on Playland in these settings? And what are the big challenges in doing so?

A major part of what we do is take our work to every type of space we can. That, for me, is what touring is about, rather than just plonking yourself in a different major city for weeks at a time. It gets very tiring doing single nights and adjusting the set and performances from 500 seat theatres to village or school hall, but it permits us to really take our work to a wide range of people. Part of the joy of doing this particular play is knowing that we are taking the issues and questions deep into communities, rather than focusing on more regular urban theatre goers.

Is there anything different about the process of directing a play when you're dealing just with two actors, as opposed to a larger cast?

Yes, you have nowhere to hide. It's pure balance between the two people. With a larger play you distribute attention and energy to different scenes and characters but with two onstage the whole time you are placing all of your focus on the invisible rope between them, and how it moves, tenses and slackens over time.

Finally, what can we expect from the show?

It's a harrowing story performed by two incredible actors on a very brutal looking set made of metal and concrete. At times its painful but also funny and energetic. Given the economy of it all, just two actors in one setting, I would say its a pretty rich evening.  


Playland is on at the Mumford Theatre on Monday 16 February at 7.30pm. Get your tickets here

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