Athol Fugard’s first play for ten years – he’s now 78 and living in California – finds him still in sombre mood on South African home territory: The Train Driver is an 80-minute two-hander for a black grave-digger and a troubled white railway man haunted by ghosts.
The play is based on a news story about a mother who stood in front of an approaching train, with three small children, on a track near the squatter camps on the windswept plains on the edge of Cape Town. There are more than a hundred such suicides on this stretch of railway each year.
Fugard imagines the plight of a helpless train driver who mowed down a mother and child and who wants to pay his respects, or at least confirm the horror of what he saw. The obsession with naming the victim, bestowing an identity - how can he ascertain which grave is hers? - runs right through Fugard’s plays and here finds its perfect post-apartheid metaphorical expression.
Interestingly, the driver, Roelf (Sean Taylor), has turned the tragedy in on himself: the woman has messed up his life, big time. He has lost his job, his marriage and his sanity. The big, bovine dispenser of anonymous life in the ground, the untroubled Simon (Owen Sejake), remains neutral.
And that’s it, with the two of them stranded like ghosts themselves in the desolate landscape, beautifully designed by Saul Radomsky, the stage spilling right into the auditorium, virtually, until a surprise, crudely executed, final coup. Fugard’s own meticulous production is almost superfluous to the visual evidence of mounds of red earth marked only by a stray wheel hub, plaster pot, or canine bone.