Charmaine Weir-Smith is an award-winning actress, director and writer who has performed in and directed over 40 theatre productions. She will bring her skill as a storyteller to The Train Driver, directing John Kani and Dawid Minnaar in Athol Fugard’s powerful piece. Creative Feel sat down with Weir-Smith to chat about the play.
When James Ngcobo approached Charmaine-Weir Smith to direct The Train Driver, she went home, read the play and gave Ngcobo an immediate and emphatic ‘yes!’ At the time, they had been discussing the possibility of casting John Kani and Dawid Minnaar, which, she says, ‘just excited me to no end.’
Weir-Smith’s love of storytelling and of Fugard’s work is evident as she delves into the reasons she chose to direct the play. ‘One has got to understand who Fugard is in the lexicon of South African theatre. You can read any Fugard play and it comes with a humanity that is always profound, on some level he’s analysing or examining human beings in a way that hasn’t been profiled before or looked at, and so the language around certain characters is extraordinary. When I read it, I was immediately taken in by that, the language that he uses around these two men, who are totally different – they come from different parts of South Africa and society – but yet his understanding of the way human beings speak, no matter if they are a train driver from Transnet Rails or a gravedigger in the Eastern Cape, his language is always so authentic.
You can read any Fugard play and it comes with a humanity that is always profound
‘So if you ask me what drew me to the production, that is the first thing. And the second thing was the opportunity to work with John and Dawid, who have never shared a stage together, so that was going to be an amazing opportunity for the two of them as well.’
Fugard’s brilliance as a playwright is often attributed to the universality of his plays – that the characters he creates are instantly relatable to anyone, anywhere in the world. ‘He chooses quite simple stories, but he tells them from a uniquely human perspective,’ says Weir-Smith. ‘For example, I don’t think the story is ever sacrificed because of the character I don’t think the characters are sacrificed because of the story. I think he uses those characters, like the train driver from Transnet, to tell that side of the story, and as the gravedigger hears it, he interprets the story and we as the audience see the universality of the themes, and the themes are loss, they are about grief, they are about somebody coming to grips with who he is in South Africa at this point in time. But it doesn’t matter if an American audience sees the play because what they’re looking at is a man grappling with his own humanity, that’s the joy of Athol, he writes from such a universal place.’
The Train Driver was originally staged in Cape Town before travelling to the UK and then the US, making this the first time it will be seen on Johannesburg stages. It is also the first time it will be directed by a woman – Fugard himself was the first director, with Stephen Sachs directing its US premiere.
But the strength of a good director, male or female, is their ability to connect with a story and tell it; to ask: ‘how do we tell the story in the best way we can tell it?’ The answer, Weir-Smith says, lies in the collaboration between herself, Kani and Minnaar and their collective storytelling abilities.
The play brings up questions surrounding Afrikaner angst and black poverty, with some reviewers questing which should have more emphasis. ‘We had a vigorous debate about that in our first rehearsal – John, Dawid and myself,’ says Weir-Smith. ‘I’m not going to tell you the outcome of it, except to tell you that I think our production addresses it in a very real, three-dimensional way. You can’t read this play from a South African perspective and not address that.
it doesn’t matter if an American audience sees the play because what they’re looking at is a man grappling with his own humanity, that’s the joy of Athol, he writes from such a universal place
‘Fugard’s got a very clear stage direction and he talks about what he suggests for the set. In his final line in describing the set, he says “it is an image of desolate finality” and that pretty much sums up what he feels is happening politically in the Eastern Cape. And I’m working with Thando Lobese, my set designer, looking at how one interprets that and we have gone a long way to addressing that. The setting is a graveyard of nameless people, people who haven’t been claimed, and that in itself resonates quite strongly with us South Africans because who doesn’t claim a loved one who has died? And that brings up a whole lot of other issues, but you cannot explore this play and not awaken something politically in the audience.’
In addition to Thando Lobese (set and costume design), the creative team is made up of Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound design) and of course, Mannie Manim (lighting design). ‘Mannie is doing the lighting in the Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market, so I feel that’s such a full-circle moment and it’s amazing,’ says Weir-Smith. Manim is probably one of the only people who can claim to have lit every single Fugard play. ‘He knows Athol’s work so well and he’s lit other productions of The Train Driver. Mannie is in a class of his own, the creative team is already, at the start of the rehearsal, such a rich offering, it’s going to be such a rich creative experience.’
While official rehearsals were only just about to begin when we spoke, Weir-Smith laughs that she, Kani and Minnaar were so excited to be working on The Train Driver that they had been getting together and started exploring the work from her lounge at home. ‘We couldn’t wait,’ she says.