SHOW: Die Laaste Karretjie Graf
Director: Athol Fugard
CAST: Ivan Abrahams, Riaan Visman, Erica Wessels, Richard September, Ephraim Gordon and Kim Pietersen
Venue: The Fugard Theatre until February 23
REVIEW: Peter Tromp
The measure of a great nation, it has been echoed in certain (liberal) courters in recent history, lies in how it treats its marginalised, minority and destitute citizens. If ‘Die Laaste Karretjie Graf’ can be regarded as an EKG of South Africa’s moral pulse, it is a pretty severe indictment of the rainbow nation myth.
Even after the play’s happy-clappy ending, which felt a little tacked on (mercy perhaps on the part of the director so that the audience doesn’t leave on too much of a downer?), the play’s chief concerns and specifically the perverted tone of the language, as if mutated by the suffering of its characters, is likely to stay with one.
Stories about the disenfranchised; the marginalised; the poor can very easily degenerate into the sappy and the sentimental.
Few authors, if any, are capable of making the voiceless sound as cosmically poetic as Athol Fugard does, and in ‘Die Laaste Karretjie Graf’ he is fine form again.
‘Boesman and Lena’ is perhaps the quintessential text of his that displays his ability to almost completely bend language to his will, where the words vibrate up against you; gives you a physical feeling, as if it has been tuned to a specific frequency.
I am glad Fugard is still so intent on reminding us of our humanity at a time when technological advancement seems to be exacerbating the distances between us instead of conflating them. Perhaps only Pieter-Dirk Uys has as relentless a voice when it comes to reminding us of our duties to the underprivileged, or shall we say, left-behinds. Only, his voice is often more political than it is humanistic.
‘Die Laaste Karretjie Graf’ is not quite a classic in the vein of ‘Boesman & Lena’, a play that will be performed probably for as long as people stage plays, but it is a fine work nonetheless and as previously mentioned, in parts deeply affecting. Like that work and his ‘The Train Driver’ from a few years ago, it is deeply concerned with people who exist in the uncaring margins of a Darwinian social system. It can be harrowing stuff, but Fugard infuses the play with moments of startling beauty and a deep love of his characters, especially the flawed ones, that somehow makes it all bearable.
The play reaches its climax when Koot (Ivan Abrahams) and Sarah (Erica Wessels), two people from completely different worlds, but whose paths intersected at a very specific point, reunite after many years.
Koot’s story is one that we have seen many times sensationally portrayed in local headlines: that of the drunken bumpkin gone violent after imbibing one too many times. Sarah is an anthropologist who did her dissertation on Koot’s children, who form part of a particular tribe of Karretjie sheepshearers in harshest Karoo.
During her “residency”, certain lines were crossed and Sarah formed a personal bond with these people; or as personal as it can get between a self-serving observer and people just being, or in their case, trying to survive the elements and starvation.
The tribe members find themselves at a crossroads after the death of a great matriarch who through sheer force of will alone kept the family unity semi-intact.
After Koot returns and reunites with his children and also runs into Sarah, it becomes apparent that an era has indeed passed for these Karretjie People, who are directly descended from the first inhabitants of South Africa.
There are certain parts of ‘Die Laaste Karretjie Graf’ that is a little clumsily handled, especially when Sarah’s personal back-story gets explored. Fugard collaborated with Riana Steyn on the script and there is a deeply personal element of hers in the tale.
He discovered her dissertation when he did a Google search on the Karretjie People with the intention of writing a play on these folks that had been brewing in his imagination for over half a century. (A promise he made to his mother who firsthand witnessed the sufferings of these people.) Unfortunately at times the play feels like two separate stories inconveniently squashed together instead of forming a coherent whole.
This s however doesn’t detract from the play’s overwhelming power, and here great credit must go to Fugard’s sensitive direction, as well as to the performances from the universally excellent cast. (Riaan Visman and Ivan Abrahams deserve special mention.)
Perhaps the most haunting words of ‘Die Laaste Karretjie Graf’ occur in the programme. In Fugard’s foreword, he says the following: “As I have done many times in the past, I have also chosen to direct this premier performance of what might well be my last play.” If his words turn out to be true, then he can rest assured that he has left theatregoers with another gift and some unforgettable characters.
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