Interview: Athol Fugard

Statements tells the true story of a white woman and a coloured man, arrested during the apartheid era because of their forbidden love. What inspired you to write about this incident?

I opened the newspaper one morning and there were pictures [of the two naked lovers] actually printed in it. And I just felt that at some point I had to deal with those photographs. It’s an awful story. The evidence in court included a piece of a blanket which the policeman had cut out with a pair of scissors because it had semen stains on it.

Are the characters in the play the same as those in real life?
No, I made up my own story. I didn’t want to write a documentary. I wanted to write a play. They call me political, they call me this, they call me that – but above everything else I am a storyteller. I want freedom to go wherever my imagination wants to go. I don’t always rise to the challenge and allow my imagination to go as far as it wants to go. But I absolutely demand that as the first principle when I sit down to write.

And that allowed you to move away from complete realism?

The monologues, the words I give the actors in the flash scenes as the police break in, are in a sense the subtext of what must have happened to the poor victims in their minds as the camera was photographing and going off. The camera happens just in an instant but time is very relative and in an instant a human being can live his whole life. But then you have the opening where the two of them have been making love and are just talking quietly. The [naturalistic] writing in there I’m very proud of. It’s terrible to talk about being proud of something that you did but I am incredibly proud of what I did in that scene. Then if you look at the writing in [the second half of the play], it’s more adventurous, bolder, more experimental than anything else I’ve ever done. It uses language in a way that I don’t think I’ve really succeeded in using it again.

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You’ve tried later on to write in a similar way?

I’ve tried but nothing of mine is quite as adventurous and imaginative as that. For those reasons Statements for me is a very, very special play.

Have there been productions of any of your plays that you didn’t like?

Many, many, many. I usually try to do anything I can to avoid going along and seeing a production of one of my plays that I myself wasn’t involved in. I’ve had a few very good experiences. But for every good experience I’ve had three or four bad ones. Bad isn’t the right word. Disappointing. They didn’t ‘get it’. They were looking at the wrong things in the play. They tried to make the play do what the play didn’t want to do. The first thing to do as a director is always to ask, what is this play trying to do? What is it really talking about? What is the story? And then tell the story.

What is in your opinion the worst mistake I could make directing Statements?

I suppose to make it a political play instead of a personal play. Focus on the sense of exposure. That’s what you got to look at. The horror will make its own statement. The horror of that experience. Of intruding like that. Putting handcuffs on two innocent people.
[You must recognize that] the stage is an incredibly free medium. That is what is so magnificent about it. I think that I explored the freedom of the stage more with Statements than I did with any other play.

Are you ever angry with yourself that you haven’t been able to write with that same freedom as before?

Yes, of course. Any writer who doesn’t end up with frustrations and a sense of not having

done their best is most probably fooling themselves.

It sounds like in the past Yvonne [Bryceland, his actress and muse] gave you that freedom. She helped you discover it.

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Oh, she was wonderful. She was absolutely amazing. There is an interview I once heard with Yehudi Menuhin in which he talked about when he got his Stradivarius. He had been playing with good violins but when he got his Stradivarius his music took on a new dimension. It was such an exquisite instrument. It challenged him to go further than he had ever gone before. And Yvonne was my Stradivarius. She challenged me, but all she ever asked me is: ‘Show me the way to get to the edge.’ I believe good performances are made right at the edge. Where there is no safety, no security, no safety nets. You really have to risk everything. An actor must be prepared to live dangerously.