Shades of grey in Fugard's THE BIRD WATCHERS


I have just arrived home from Athol Fugard's The Bird Watchers. It was the opening night, the world premiere – and that in the Fugard theatre. Fugard himself was there, and he took time to talk to us.

What a privilege.

If you plan to see it, go!

I will, however, try to write the review so that it does not spoil the fun.

Unlike many other Fugard dramas, this one has two acts. The first act opens in a courtyard below a beautiful tree, somewhere on the hot Eastern Coast of our country. We meet a playwright, Garth (based on Fugard), a theatre producer, Lenny (based on Barney Simon), and an actress, Rosalyn (based on Yvonne Bryceland).

The place is Garth's backyard - in both acts.

In the second act, we meet all three of them back here again, but under very different circumstances.

Because the piece, a work of fiction, is based on the lives of Fugard, Simon and Bryceland, I’ll sketch a little background.


Historical background
From early on Fugard encountered the wrath of the apartheid government, as his life and work were definitely not on par with their vision for the country. He has also done a lot for black actors, like Zakes Moka, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. These, now-famous actors were encouraged by Fugard to continue with their work and he helped them to do so.

Fugard lived and worked in Port Elizabeth for a while – and it's here, on the East Coast, where The Bird Watchers is set.

Yvonne Bryceland and her husband, Brian Astbury, co-founded, The Space Theatre (better known as The Space) in Cape Town in 1972. Many of Fugard's pieces were performed there. Fugard too worked there for a while.

In 1976 Barney Simon opened the Market Theatre in Johannesburg – a lot of Fugard’s plays were performed there as well.

The Space and the Market Theatre were two theatres (possibly the only two) where all actors of all races were welcome.


Back to The Bird Watchers
The piece opens on a balmy summer day in Garth (the playwright's) garden. Garth is a keen birder. He is already slightly drunk when we meet him, so he is boisterous and bossy.

Opposite him is Lenny, the sober and refined city slicker. When Garth shows Lenny a young Dikkop chick and its mother hiding in the bushes, Lenny is quite taken with this and wishes he had a bag full of worms as a small sacrifice to the mother-bird offer.

Garth teases Lenny for these sentiments, saying nature did require not sacrifice.

Meanwhile it grows clear that Rosalyn (the actress) wants Garth to move to Cape Town to live there and to participate in her theatrical work. (See my reference to Yvonne Bryceland and The Space above.)

Garth is fond of the Eastern Cape and is backing two black actors to become professional actors – despite the fact that there were only "only two theaters" in the country” that would allow them on stage (see the reference to Kani and Ntshona above.) (That single line, indicating that the actors could not play where they wanted to, positioned the piece during the apartheid era. There were no other overt references to the political system of the time.)

There is tension between Garth and Rosalyn because of her insistence that he should move to Cape Town. The tension runs deeper, though. Garth is apparently working on an adaptation of an ancient Greek drama, and he has half-promised the role Clytemnestra to Rosalyn.


A little Greek mythology
Agamemnon was the leader of the Greek fleet during the Trojan War and was married to Clytemnestra. They had several children, including a daughter called Iphigenia.

At one point there was a total lack of wind and an oracle told Agamemnon to sacrifice Iphigenia to the gods – the wind would then return. He agreed to do so. The child was saved by Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, but Clytemnestra was not very happy about this.

Ten years later, Agamemnon died at the hands of Clytemnestra – in revenge for him having been willing to sacrifice her child.


The second act
Thirty years after the characters’ first meeting, the playwright, Garth, is back in the same backyard. This time the journey takes place in his imagination. Again Lenny and Rosalyn appear. Both are dead already, but they still live on in Garth's head.

Garth suffers great feelings of guilt. He realises that he was wrong to stop Lenny's desire to make a sacrifice to the mother-bird. Garth also feels guilty that has he never completed the Greek tragedy which he has promised Rosalyn.

Inter texts and Extra textual references
Three of us bought tickets for opening night. I did, so too did my old friend Awie, and Georg, a Swiss pharmacologist who is in South Africa for a few days to do research.

Georg had seen a Fugard drama before and he was keen to do so again. He is extremely intelligent and well read, but many of the historical references caught him off guard.

The piece is not an "anti-apartheid drama", rather it is a Greek tragedy set in South Africa. Think of Aristophanes’ famous drama The Birds. For the Greeks birds were the embodiment of new, young gods. Lenny's sacrifice, which he never brought, was therefore a missed sacrifice to the gods.

These references to other famous dramas make The Bird Watchers a text that will easily work in any other country, yet it is truly South African. Like Georg, the overseas audiences will follow the Greek inter texts, but they may not realise how important the local references are; I only needed to give Georg a few pointers, though, that was enough to set him on the right track.

The Bird Watchers is not an easy piece, but it is worth seeing – especially for the excellent acting.


The acting
Sean Taylor in the role of Garth (disguised as Fugard) had a most difficult task. Fugard is well known and just after Taylor, as Garth, took a bow, the real Athol Fugard came on stage.

What's more, in the first act Garth is pretty drunk (Fugard had an alcohol problem in his young days). In the last act, Garth is thirty years older. The other characters do not mature – they play themselves as they have been then.

It was wonderful to see the contrast.

Dorothy Ann Gould, in the role of the actress (who is intentionally dramatic) played very well – and did a very solid monologue as Clytemnestra.

But it was Guy de Lancey who most impressed me. He hardly played. He was quiet, almost unobtrusively so. Film fans often say Clint Eastwood is such a great actor because of he does so little. Go and see de Lancey's understated performance. It was impressive.


Of course one should go see Fugard.

Afterwards, when Fugard gave us an audience, the point was made that he is now allowed to work more "in shades of grey", since the stark black and white days of apartheid are over. This piece tells us a lot about the grey shadows in Fugard's internal race against the demons that compel him to keep writing.

Go and enjoy.


The technical team
The lighting was designed by Mannie Manim, an old friend of Barney Simon from the days of the Market Theatre. The costumes were done by Saul Radomsky and sound was by James Webb. Jaco Nothnagel was the production manager and Queenie Jacob stage manager.


Gepubliseer: Mei 2011

© Catharina Loader 2001