As part of this year’s Black History Month, Durham’s own Elysium Theatre Company is bringing the northern premiere of Playland to the City Theatre. Written by one of South Africa’s greatest living playwrights, Athol Fugard, Playland charts the development of an unlikely relationship between two men divided by apartheid brought together by their search for truth and reconciliation. I talked to co-founder and assistant director, Jake Murray, to understand more about his vision for the production.
A play that explores issues of race, most specifically apartheid in South Africa, how do you think it relates to current audiences?
Growing up in the 70s & 80s, the existence of Apartheid was very much part of my political upbringing. It seemed like the epitome of human injustice, and no-one thought it would come to an end. When it did, it felt like a time of global rejoicing and everyone felt that the world was about to enter a new era of peace, prosperity and harmony. Now here we are more than 25 years later and we are heading back to that injustice all over the world. Far Right, populist leaders are in power all across the planet, often put there by admiring electorates, pushing racial hatred and division and redrawing the battle lines in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion which we thought had died all those years ago.
Playland speaks directly to all of this. It serves as a warning of what happens when we let any kind of racial supremacism take over, when we entrench racial hatred in our political systems. It does so by being an intensely personal play. Fugard deals with it entirely through the prism of two men who meet each other one night and go through this extraordinary journey from hatred and antagonism to some kind of understanding.
Athol Fugard is one of South Africa’s greatest playwrights and yet is relatively unknown in the UK. What is it that attracts you to his writing?
I love the lyrical humanity of his writing. The fashion with British playwriting over the last four or five decades has been for writers to be cruel and cynical, and consequently, I have always felt very out of step with new writing from my own country. Fugard is different. Although he writes about life under one of the most immoral and brutalising regimes of the last century he never lost sight of the possibility that human beings could overcome. His plays face suffering, oppression, loneliness, despair and suffering, but oppose that with a profound belief in the human spirit which is never sentimental.
This production is a two-man show, however, you are not shy of a bigger production as displayed by your previous production of Miss Julie. Can we expect some more exciting projects to come?
Yes indeed! As are many modern theatre companies, we are confined to small cast plays because we can’t fund bigger ones, or at least not yet. Miss Julie was a fantastic opportunity to ‘go large’ with the Servants Ensemble, and the experience of working with DST and DUCT students on that was fantastic, and something we want to do again.
We have big ambitions and are talking to the Arts Council and all sorts of big theatres about how we can move towards bigger cast shows. We are looking forward to returning to the Assembly Rooms next year as well. We can’t say much, and we don’t want to offer any hostages to fortune, but our hope is that we will graduate onto larger scale shows over the next two years, and we hope to work more with DST students too…
Elysium Theatre Company brings Playland to the City Theatre between 24th-26th October.
Image by Elysium Theatre Company