Linda Bassett & Cordelia Monsey On ... Athol FugardDate: 17 June 2010
The Arcola’s current season of Athol Fugard plays consists of the UK premiere of Coming Home (8 June – 3 July) directed by Cordelia Monsey and The Road to Mecca (16 July – 10 August) starring Linda Bassett.
Cordelia Monsey previously directed Fugard’s Victory at Theatre Royal Bath and was associate director to Sir Peter Hall on both Bedroom Farce and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Linda Bassett is similarly no stranger to Fugard, having previously performed in A Place with the Pigs at the National Theatre in the late 80s. Bassett is also an award-wiinning screen actress, playing Ella Khan in East is East, and more recently starring in blockbusters such as the The Reader and Calendar Girls.
Getting to know Athol Fugard
Linda Bassett: I was fortunate enough to work with Athol Fugard when I did a play of his called A Place with the Pigs which was two-hander between a man and a woman that he had acted in himself in South Africa. But when it came to London, he gave me the part of the woman, and Jim Broadbent the part of the man. It was great working with him. He’s a very giving, enthusiastic and inspiring man. He puts all of himself into his plays. He’s a South African to his boots – a real story-teller and there’s something almost basic about his plays. The simplest form of theatre often has the greatest universal appeal. And working with Athol, you realise his work isn’t about great performances but about everyone doing their best in order to serve the play.
Cordelia Mosey: I met Athol Fugard for the first time when I was quite young. My mother went to drama school with Paul Scofield and so we went watch a preview of Dimetos that he was in. And we were both so exhilarated, moved, drained and generaly enriched by it that when we went back stage afterwards to see Paul he took one look at our faces and said “I think you had better meet the playwright.” So we did and I’ve known Fugard for many years subsequently and every time he comes over to the UK we have tea and buns – an incredibly rich and valuable friendship. And supposedly he eventually came to think I was worthy to direct a play of his.
And this is my second UK premier of a Fugard play, so I guess I do feel a certain responsibility to keep his work in the British consciousness. Athol’s rightly idolised in the States and he's just had a theatre named after him in District Six in Cape Town but in the UK he’s not quite as well-known. The young actor David Judge who’s in Coming Home has been asking: “why did I not hear about Athol Fugard when I was at drama school? Why did I not do any of his plays?” And now he’s devouring them. So I do feel it’s important to make young people aware of him because he’s the most wonderful story-teller.
The first time they worked on a Fugard play
Linda Bassett: When we did A Place with the Pigs at the National, they very much had the attitude that anytime Fugard wanted to do something there, they would open their doors for him – and rightly so. To this date Fugard’s The Island at the National in 2000 with the same actors as the original 1973 production is still one the best pieces of theatre I think I’ve ever watched. And it’s one of the key things that has inspired me to do this play.
Cordelia Monsey: Four years ago I was offered to direct the UK Premiere of Victory at Bath Theatre Royal and during the course of rehearsals, one actor turned 18 another actor turned 19 and the third turned 80 and they got on like a house on fire. And that seems to be often what Fugard writes about – the relationships over the generations. And it's the same for this play, it’s been great having a cast of actors in their 70s and boys who aren’t even teenagers.
The current Fugard play they are working on
Linda Bassett: The Road to Mecca is set in 1974 when apartheid was still very much entrenched but, despite being over 30 years ago, it's still got universal appeal. The three characters are a teacher, a pastor and an artist (who I play); three very key figures in a community, especially in an oppressive regime.
When I was in SA earlier this year, I went to visit The Owl House where my character Miss Helen lived. She was a woman who made her home and garden into one great big work of art. There are carved owls sitting outside many of the other houses in the village, copies of Helen’s art, so she is very much revered now. But you know darn well that wasn’t the case when she was alive and creating her art. She was ostracized by her neighbours in the village when she was alive. The play is set two years before she dies.
Cordelia Monsey: Valley Song, Fugard's precursor to this play, ends with the main young girl leaving to become a singer in Cape Town. But for most people too often dreams don’t become reality so twelve years later she comes back with a little boy at her side and that's how Coming Home begins. So at the heart of the story, like in most of Fugard’s plays, is a woman who through the most horrendous circumstances refuses to be a victim.
I’ve got a great sign up above my desk which is a quote from Athol: “Never ask pity of your audience!” You have to eschew the remotest possibility of being sentimental and just be absolutely direct, simple and straightforward because these characters do not ask for pity, they are not victims and his women, in particular, always have an incredible dignity to them.
The timely coincidence of the Athol Fugard season with the World Cup
Linda Bassett: Currenly people seem to be very dismissive of South Africa asking “why hasn’t it got its act together?” But it’s not that long ago that it was crushed in an appalling abomination. And people are still having to live with that – you don’t just recover in an instant. And I think the country’s been miraculous in how it has dealt with moviing away from its former difficulties. And if during the World Cup people want to learn a bit more about South Africa, it’d be wonderful to watch this play and think about how it’s developed.
Cordelia Monsey: There is currently a burgeoning black middle class in South Africa but for the Cape Coloureds that’s just not true. As one character explains in Coming Home, they are all just waiting for something to happen and unforunately there is a huge swathe of the population for whom the dream hasn’t comes true. I read this quotation in the Observer from a guy standing on a street corner somewhere in South Africa that said: “if the World Cup doesn’t change my life I don’t know what I will do.” I find that so potent and terrifyingly depressing.
So what Fugard is emphasising at the end of Coming Home are family values and the value of story-telling. I was listening to a young South African singer on a Radio4 tell Lenny Henry that the best thing that South Africa has to offer is its stories. And this is exactly the message of the play. The final scene shows a little boy starting to write his Grandfather's stories down and so in a way he becomes the new Fugard. It shows that integral sentiment that for South Africa heritage and story-telling are completely intertwined.