Sean Taylor, Owen Sejake
This production of Athol Fugard’s highly personal new play, directed by the
author, was premiered earlier this year in Cape Town at the Fugard Theatre – recently
opened in honour of South Africa’s greatest playwright whose reputation has spread
The starting point for The Train Driver was Fugard reading a news
report in 2000 about how a desperate black woman from a squatter camp deliberately
walked on to a railway track with her three young children to be killed by an
oncoming train. In the play, however, there is only one child and the mother’s identity
and background is unknown.
More importantly, Fugard has decided to concentrate on the traumatized white
train driver Roelf, whose inability to cope with his sense of guilt and shock has put
both his job and his family life in jeopardy. Searching for the burial place of the
mother and baby, he encounters the black gravedigger Simon, with whom he builds a
hesitant rapport as he tries to come to terms with life on the other side of the tracks.
Fugard has said that The Train Driver “is, for me personally, the most
important play I’ve written”. It’s easy to understand why because, although Fugard
himself made his name in the 70s and 80s as an outspoken anti-apartheid campaigner,
it deals with the collective white guilt over the appalling living conditions that so
many blacks suffer in South Africa even since the end of the racist regime. Similarly,
although Roelf could not stop his train hitting the mother and baby, he feels somehow
responsible and compelled to claim them since nobody else has.
The trouble is that the play, though undoubtedly sincere, seems rather self-
indulgent and too narrowly focused. The dead black woman may represent her
suffering community, but because we find out nothing about her she remains just a
symbol, while the taciturn Simon is very much a supporting figure to Roelf, as he
listens patiently to the white man’s emotional burden.
Nonetheless, this 75-minute two-hander, written in Fugard’s late, stripped-down
style with hints of earthy mysticism, is certainly movingly direct and some suspense
is created by the unseen but imminent arrival of local thugs, before the violently tragic
climax and bitterly ironic coda. It is staged with admirable tautness by the 78-year-
old Fugard, in a return from a ten-year retirement from directing which indicates the
significance of the project for him.
Saul Radomsky’s superb set has a distinctly Beckettian sense of desolation to it.
In an arid wasteland with a single stunted tree and a few tufts of grass sprouting from
the rocky sand, featuring a tumbledown shack and bordered by a barbed wire fence,
the mounds of a dozen unmarked shallow graves can be seen, topped with scraps of
metal to deter wild dogs from digging them up. This does indeed feel like the end of
Sean Taylor fully convinces us of Roelf’s obsession and breakdown, alternating
between anger and grief, as he scrabbles in the dirt forming the stones into crosses on the graves, haunted by the spirits of the oppressed people buried below. Owen Sejake
has a massive stage presence as the part-narrator Simon, conveying his reactions more
with his eyes and body rather than in words, as a simple man tying to survive against
The Train Driver may not be one of the best plays in Fugard’s long and
distinguished career, but it still makes the powerful point that the racial divide in
South Africa is not a thing of the past.