Imogen Usherwood speaks to Jake Murray, Director of Elysium Theatre Company, about his new production of Playland, playing at the City Theatre next week.

Jake Murray’s theatre company Elysium are no strangers to the Durham stage, having presented The River and Miss Julie here last year. Now he’s back with Playland, a two-man show by Athol Fugard, set in the final stages of Apartheid in South Africa. 

Murray, who has ‘known Fugard’s plays for most of my life’ after studying African literature at school, is particularly excited for this production, not only for Elysium but also with an eye on the current political climate. ‘We were looking for a play for the two actors who had been so powerful together in Jesus Hopped The A Train: Danny Solomon and Faz Singhateh. I picked up Playland and there it was. Here is a play that speaks directly to where we are now: populist leaders are playing to peoples’ fears of foreigners, immigrants and other ethnicities, national policy is becoming focused on dividing us along lines of race and culture. This play from the dying days of Apartheid speaks directly to this crisis, it shows us what happens when a country enshrines racism in its laws. It couldn’t be more powerful a warning.’

Playland, set on New Years’ Eve in 1989, was written two years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and two years before he was voted President. Murray outlines the play’s context to me: ‘Apartheid was still very much in force, but the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Apartheid regime was no longer a Cold War asset for the West, so pressure was put on it to reform. The South African President, F. W. de Klerk, knew the days of white minority rule were over, so began secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela about a transfer of power. By February 1990 Mandela would be out of prison, the ban on the African National Congress (the main opposition to Apartheid) was lifted and talks began for a new South Africa.’

The play follows two characters, white ex-serviceman Gideon Le Roux and black nightwatchman Martinus Zoeloe, neither of whom knows that their country and their lives are about to change forever. Murray describes how ‘The two men encounter each other in Martinus’s makeshift nightwatchman’s camp on the edge of a run-down funfair, the Playland of the title. Through their own communal long dark night of the soul they confront each other, force each other to face up to the sins of their past and battle towards some kind of redemption… But is redemption possible after so many years of oppression?’

As heavy as this sounds, Murray assures me that ‘you may not believe it but there’s been a lot of laughter; it’s a very funny play along with everything else, so we have been hooting in rehearsals.’

Indeed, the rehearsal process has been ‘intense’, Murray tells me, given this is a ninety-minute play with just two actors, confronting ‘massive themes of trauma, brutalisation, racial oppression, violence, guilt and redemption’. Nevertheless, He appreciates the colossal significance of this production: ‘Fugard was trying to write a national tragedy. His goal was to try and engage with the massive process of dialogue and healing he knew his country would have to go through if it was to make the transition from Apartheid to freedom without violence. On top of that, Fugard wrote with actors in mind (his lifelong colleague, the great John Kani, played Martinus in the original production), and often included their ideas in his script, so we are very aware that we are following in the footsteps of two great actors.’

As he attempts to ‘live up to Fugard’s extraordinary ambition’, Murray credits Elysium’s modus operandi for their success: ‘we are an ensemble company which chooses its shows with actors in mind. That means the actors we use know each other already, as they have worked together on other shows. Everyone is on the same page, actors and directors. That ensemble feel means we have trust in the space from the outset, know how we all work and have goals in common. That makes for a great working ethic in the rehearsal room, a lot of camaraderie and a real spirit of communal creativity.’

The show, which is touring the north, will stop at Durham’s City Theatre for three nights, a venue with which Elysium is familiar, having presented the northern premiere of Jez Butterworth’s The River there last year. ‘It’s a wonderfully intimate space into which theatre of this kind fits perfectly. With few exceptions, all of Fugard’s plays are chamber pieces. They are all about intimacy and the subtleties of human relationships. There is very little spectacle in his work, it’s all about the acting and the text. This means that they work best in small, studio-like spaces.’

Murray easily convinces me that Playland is a show to watch next week. ‘It’s one of those plays that has an epic emotional landscape, even though its stage resources are tiny – two actors and a single set. It’s a play that speaks to our moment in history. It will make you laugh and it will move you, but most of all it truly believes in the human spirit, showing that, even under as unjust a system as Apartheid, there is the possibility of freedom and dignity. In that respect it’s one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of writing I have ever worked on. If you love great theatre, it’s the show for you.’

Playland will be performed at the City Theatre, Durham, on the 24th, 25th and 26th October.

17th October 2019