Afrikaans is an odd language. It can be as stiff and formal as a dominie in a Karoo dorp circa 1950, and it can be as loose as a hip-hop B-boy in Mitchell’s Plain. It can be as lyrical as an autumn sunset over the Atlantic, and as coarse as a gesuipte bergie on the Grand Parade.And virtually all South Africans over the age of 30 for whom it is not their mother tongue have at some stage struggled to appreciate a language that was so tied to an oppressive regime.
There was thus a thimble of apprehension as I set off the view the world premier of the Afrikaans translation of Athol Fugard’s most autobiographical play, the intriguingly named The Captain’s Tiger, or, in this rendition, Die Kaptein se Tier.
Was it going to be turned into something unutterably boring, like the English translation of Marlene van Niekerk’s Afrikaans novel Agaat, or would it provide the lyrical yet earthy and lively Afrikaans I belatedly learnt to love?
Would I be forced to spend the entire 100 minutes flicking my eyes up to the English surtitles?
The play is the most apolitical of Fugard’s writing, it is the story of young man setting out to write his first novel while working as the Captain’s skivvie (tiger) on board a steamship. With a photograph of his mother as a young woman as his muse, and with the support of the illiterate ship mechanic, he struggles write a story that will reflect the dreams she was unable to fulfil.
Apprehensions over the translation were dispelled as soon as Graham Weir – in his role as The Writer – delivered the opening lines. After all, the doyen of Afrikaans literature, Antjie Krog, was in charge of the text. At times the language was so evocative that Fugard’s English unobtrusively displayed above the stage appeared almost dull in comparison.
In hindsight, given the stellar cast and production team involved in staging this play as part of the eighth Suidoosterfees, it would have been surprising if it was anything less than superb.
Weir appeared effortless in his depiction of a mature Fugard and Neels van Jaarsveld inhabited the role of the idealistic, slightly naïve but adventurous and ambitious young writer who is the Captain’s Tiger as if that was all he ever took up acting to do.
Erica Wessels as the romantic mid-20th-Century Afrikaans girl who is a complex mix of practicality, innocence and desire, had hearts beating for her only.
And Owen Sejake as Donkieman – the illiterate ship’s mechanic – rose from his role as lowly labourer to command the stage as a king. He did, after all, play Donkeyman in the premier of the play at the State Theatre in 1995.
Add direction by Janice Honeyman on a genius set designed by Dicky Longhurst, and you can be assured of not seeing a gesture out of place or a superfluous facial tic.
That is not to say the acting was stiff, far from it, it flowed like wine in a seaside tavern, and like wine imbibed by the bottle, brought forth, seemingly without any intent, the contemplation of ideas, meanings and philosophies that lesser plays so transparently try to uncork.
After the unfortunate drama that beset the Fugard Theatre late last year, the unsullied excellence of Die Kaptein se Tier has the same effect on the venue as the ocean upon which the play unfolds, cleansing the atmosphere and burying all memories of unpleasantness in sediments of history. To watch a Fugard play so superbly performed in a well appointed theatre that bears his name is, like really fine wine, a pleasure to be savoured. – Steve Kretzmann, West Cape News
* Die Kaptein se Tier runs until 5 February 2011. Tickets cost between R70 and R120, and can be booked through the theatre on 021 461 4554 or www.thefugard.com