BWW Reviews: Fugard Still a Compelling Presence in THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD
The greatest thing about THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD is seeing South African theatre legend, Athol Fugard, back on stage. For many audience members who were in the audience on opening night - on the day that Fugard was named as recipient of the 2014 Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award for theatre, no less - seeing the actor onstage was a reminder of his legendary performances from years gone by, while for others it was a chance to catch a glimpse of those glory days of South African theatre that older and more distinguished generations of theatregoers hold dear. Being able to watch Fugard in a new play that he has also written and co-directed (with Paula Fourie), at the theatre which bears his name, added to the tangible opening night buzz in the foyer of the Fugard theatre. Indeed, comments were flying about the unique experience of being able to see Fugard play Fugard in a Fugard directed by Fugard at the Fugard - although I must admit that I first saw that sentiment expressed by contemporary South African playwright, Louis Viljoen, on Facebook much earlier in the day.
For THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD, Fugard takes his inspiration from his relationship with his grandson. The play dramatizes the events of one afternoon between Oupa and Boba, as the retired South African teacher tries to cross the generation gap and connect with his progeny, dealing with topics like the difficulties of familial relationships, the meaning of writing, the importance of philosophy and the nature of true education. While there are plenty of ideas at work in the text, the relationship between the Oupa and Boba is at the heart of the piece. It is impossible not to recall the relationship between Sam and Hally in "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS, although the socio-political climate is not central to the action of the new play.
The section of the play that deals with Oupa and Boba is really only one half of what transpires in THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD. Indeed, it feels as though there are two performances competing for space and time on the stage. The play opens with a long scene in which Oupa wanders around his home, reading extracts from notebooks that he has kept throughout his life. Although the rest of the play has its roots in autobiography, the line between fact and fiction in this open scene is completely blurred. It is almost a piece of performance art, in which Fugard wanders around his own thoughts, past and present, which collide as his self-imposed exile pulls him one way and his yearning for South Africa pulls him in another. With greater structure and a more focused intention, these first 25 minutes or so could make for an entire evening's entertainment on their own. Would people buy into the idea of Fugard as a performance artist? Why not? After all, his reputation is based on his bending of the rules and as a theatrical innovator.
The thing that would make a performance like that work is that Fugard is quite compelling to watch on stage, despite his long sabbatical from acting. Throughout THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD, Fugard is never less than engaging and there are moments when he is completely arresting. One such occasion comes when Oupa withdraws from his conversation with Boba, after the boy carelessly, but not maliciously, questions the relevance of Plato and the allegory of the cave. The few minutes that Fugard spends in silence with his little red copy of THE REPUBLIC, as he works his way around the emotions that this rouses in Oupa, are magical.
As Boba, Marviantoz Baker never quite becomes the effective foil for Oupa that he should be. An actor in his early 20s who is playing a character that must be about a decade younger than himself, Baker convincingly looks the part, but his performance lacks the depth that would make the final scene really moving and his vocal work needs greater technical proficiency when it comes to the use of tone and accent. The justification for using an older actor to play a part like this must surely lie in the technique that he can bring to his performance; in this case, casting an intuitive, younger actor might have served the play better.
The design of THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD is superb. Visually, Saul Radomsky's set is a feast for the eyes, exquisite in its realistic detail, with many books lining the shelves on the panelled lemon walls and all kinds of evidence of a life well lived on display throughout the tiny room. Radomsky's costumes similarly capture precisely who Oupa and Boba are. Together, they represent a masterful effort on the part of this prolific designer. Mannie Manim has lit the play delicately and James Webb has worked out sound design for the piece with equal intricacy. The technical and creative aspects of these elements of the production are second to none.
As an exercise in nostalgia, THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD works well. While Fugard may not be at the cutting edge of contemporary South African theatre, his contribution to the arts in this country and his legacy is unquestionable. This play might not be great in the way that HELLO AND GOODBYE, PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE or BOESMAN AND LENA are, but having an opportunity to see Fugard in action at the Fugard Studio is quite something. It is an event that I never thought I would see come to pass in my lifetime; that it happened is something for which I will always be grateful.
The Cape Town run of THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD at the Fugard Studio Theatre, which closes on 26 July 2014, is completely sold, but tickets are still available for the upcoming seasons of the show at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (30 July - 16 August, via Computicket) and at the Andre Huguenet Theatre in Bloemfontein (21 - 30 August, via PACOFS).