Theatre review: Train Driver

Posted on: 17 November 2010 by Rhian Mainwaring

A bleak view of post-apartheid South Africa is provided by eminent 78-year-old playwright Athol Fugard in his new two-hander The Train Driver at the Hampstead Theatre.

The play was inspired by a newspaper article about the suicide of a woman fleeing a squatter camp on the Cape Flats. Strapping her three small children to her body, she stepped in front of a speeding train on the railway tracks between Philippa and Nyanga.

Each year as many as 400 people die on the tracks between Cape Town and Khayelitsha.

But instead of focusing on the plight of the woman and the reasons for her action, Fugard replays events from the point of view of the traumatised white train driver Roelf, who has turned his back on his wife and daughter and stumbles into a makeshift graveyard tended by a poor black man, Simon. Linked only to the dead woman by circumstance, Roelf forms a close rapport with Simon whom he opens up to and unburdens his conscience. Gradually the two men form a kind of mutual understanding which comes to an abrupt end when violence intrudes.

This is a play about hope and disillusionment and race and relationships in which Fugard examines some of the guilt felt by white South Africans about the condition of their country. Admittedly this is a work in which the emphasis is on character rather than action but at times it feels too low key and lacks a certain dramatic punch.

However Saul Radomskey’s atmospheric set of ramshackle hut and graveyard where anonymous individuals are buried under small mounds of earth while the sandy gravel ground is strewn with stones, a bottle, hubcap, bicycle wheel and old plants and bric-a-brac exudes a strong sense of realism and makes us feel we are actually there. While this is hardly vintage Fugard, it does provide a thought-provoking reflection on the sour legacy of South Africa’s racially intolerant past.

By Laurence Green

Plays until the 4th of February

Box office: 0207 722 9301

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