I discovered Playland in a second hand bookshop in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Considering myself a Fugard fan, I was embarrassed and excited to find a play of his I hadn’t come across. A first read and I knew it was something I wanted to direct. It seemed to distil all his major themes into one essential conflict between a white and black South African; taking place outside a rickety travelling amusement park in a vast rural expanse of South Africa.
Back to school
We begin rehearsals, with our first read-through held at a local school, Nottingham Academy, in the company of a number of invited staff and students. This links to a parallel project where students will write a response piece to Playland over the coming weeks, as our own production takes shape. I am aware that this is a larger audience than actors are generally used to for a first day so I try and eliminate any expectations of a performance in my introductory chat.
The students were engaged with the play, listening attentively (with the exception of the one next to me who throughout it sat in that wonderful collapsed position reserved for classroom boredom – head practically between his knees.) But everyone seemed to share clear, concise responses afterwards. Even the collapsed boy raised his head at the end to pitch in useful thoughts. I generally dislike the first day read-through, but this felt worthwhile. It was a chance to receive instinctive responses to the play and to judge how these themes resonated with a school-age generation in Nottingham today.
A lot of conversations about prejudice before work starts each day; personal experiences, anecdotes, other examples. None of these talks are planned but given the subject matter they arise inevitably. It is an interesting subject, looked at abstractly. Are there general things that lie at the root of all types of prejudice? Fear? Control? Self-image? We discuss the insecurity of the racist. In our play the white character Gideon Le Roux at times treats the black character Martinus as an intellectual equal or superior, and moments later addresses him as ‘boy.’
Fugard writes this play very emotionally, very on the sleeve. None of that British buried thought or emotion here. Feelings are expressed explosively, openly, honestly. The challenge is then to find a tone that avoids sentimentality but maintains the energy he has created. We don’t want to dampen it by plastering our own subtleties over it, but also need to use the language in such a way that it feels lived in, not too written.
With just two actors onstage, almost everything comes down to a constant balance. Nothing to hide behind. Monologues can be tricky when there is another person present, as you lose the option to simply strike a relationship between speaker and audience. The set, a fenced background and raised concrete island in the centre, thrusts the actors into a kind of isolation from one another. A hard space to make warm. This is all deliberate and it suits our lonely theme, but it demands a lot of precise management. Inevitable moments where actors feel constricted, blocked by the intrusions of the space.
Such great joy in found objects
Our aim has been to use real/ found materials whenever possible in this show. Currently: 3 Heras fences from a construction site, an oil drum found at a pig farm and a few stacks of wooden crates. The beautiful resonance of the fences when you hit them couldn’t be artificially constructed. I am having to use a lot of discipline not to over use them musically in the show. In fact I may give in. Could possibly conceive of a sequence in which Martinus taps at the fences arhythmically to show his boredom – possibly also harking back to his (pre-action) time spent in prison.
Reading Fugard’s early diaries
I am excited to spot a few entries that I believe were the genesis of this play, even 30 years before it was written. The first is his mention of an African man that he spots at a protest rally in 1962:
“A big powerfully built man, 40-50, wearing a balaclava cap, squatting on the ground. Never looked at the speakers. Hard to say that he even ‘listened to’ or heard the speeches. Almost as if he really only wanted the sound of those voices; drew his comfort simply from being there. A solid, patient, disturbing image.”
He then describes in 1966 going to an actual amusement park called Playland, in which he spotted:
“An African in faded blue overalls. His behaviour manner, slightly odd – chewing a match and muttering darkly to himself. His eyes- abstracted intensity.”
I end the week with a sad realisation that I may have a small part to perform in this play myself. After doing several trials of all of us recording the voice over for the unseen ‘Boss Barney’, the actors vote my joke recording as their favourite. Partly because as a non-actor I fail to give the voice any colour, depth or inflection, which they feel suits the callousness of this character. I will keep it in for now, but all I hear when it comes on is an awful over-familiar, unrefined drawl.
Artistic Director, Jack McNamara