Athol Fugard’s Playland stages a simple, charged encounter between two South African men at a tipping point in both their political situation and their personal histories. On New Year’s Eve 1989, the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC and the independence of Namibia are still to be realised; the toll of apartheid and guerrilla warfare on the borders is still deeply felt.
In Jack McNamara’s touring production for New Perspectives, the key voice is perhaps that of the master of ceremonies at Playland, the traveling amusement park that gives the play its title. Heard over the tannoy, the MC offers fun, laughter, escapism and new beginnings in a disillusioned monotone, only really letting his personality show when he admits that he, like everyone else, can’t wait for 1989 to be over. The turn of the year is masked in an empty party where white men and women take rides on rollercoasters and shoot at plastic ducks, determinedly ‘having fun’ on what the night-watchman calls ‘the pleasure machine’.
Hyemi Shin’s set consists simply of a fence dividing Martinus Zoeloe’s watch-post from the unseen amusement park, a fence that unobtrusively evokes the divisions of apartheid as Ben Cutler’s Gideon Le Roux, a white ex-serviceman, passes through to lose himself among his ‘own people’. Yet it is at the fence that the play’s drama takes place. Gideon and Martinus are both damaged, both drawn to the edge of the park to watch the sunset and sunrise, and it is in their repeated meetings (instigated by a restless Gideon) that the play’s drama occurs.
Any two-hander dependent on the slow eking-out of a series of revelations must depend on some spatial variety, and McNamara cleverly shifts the spatial dynamic throughout the production. At the start, Martinus is taciturn, still, a locus of confident and stoic resolve. Gideon, by contrast, is driven compulsively to fill the silences, to intrude on the quiet man. Cutler offers a superb study in privilege, forcing his victim to respond to his inquisition and projecting his own anger and bitterness.
As soon as he elicits religious moralism from Martinus, Gideon begins to shut down the conversation, yet then sustains it on his own terms. The power dynamic begins subtly: Gideon controls the conversation, both content and intensity, and instructs Martinus on the nature of his responses. Yet when Gideon finally responds to Martinus’s address of him as ‘White Man’ with his own disgusted ‘Black Man’, the ugliness of Gideon’s actions begins to emerge.
In the play’s second half, however, as the two men’s shared burdens of guilt begin to emerge, the spatial dynamic begins to even out. Martinus finally responds to Gideon’s riling, and the two embark in discourse over the ethics of their histories and future actions. While the play from this point perhaps becomes less interesting, with no surprises remaining, the performances grow in strength.
The two men circle and corner one another, parrying and sparring as they seek theological or moral high ground, while also working out their own experience of atrocity. Gideon’s suicidal provocations give way to an emotional collapse, Cutler exploring the full range of options opened up by denial, repression and revelation. Carr, by contrast, allows Martinus a restrained dignity, the peaceful man showing the potential for violence yet exerting tremendous self-control. Violence is implicit throughout, particularly in both men’s descriptions of the acts they have committed as soldiers and criminals, yet here what matters is the struggle to abstain.
While the ending of this production is rather too rosy (literally, the actors bathed in the red light of an offstage dawn), McNamara’s sensitive direction allows the big questions – can the taking of a life be justified? can an atheist sin? can forgiveness leave us with nothing to live for? – to play out in focused attention. Two excellent performances marry danger with restraint and offer a snapshot of both hope and fear at a transitional moment. Ignoring the fact that the historical point of the play is now somewhat distant, the production instead reminds its audiences that it is the legacy of our actions, rather than those actions themselves, with which we need to reckon.