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Charles Fourie on South Other-Ness and the world stage

Anton Krueger in coversation with award-winning South African playwright, Charles Fourie

Anton Krueger: It's probably not the best way to kick off this interview - admitting that I haven't seen many of your most recent endeavours - but I'm afraid that's what I'm going to have to do. Perhaps you could tell me about some of your most satisfying recent projects.

Charles Fourie: The most recent was the Vonkverse multimedia poetry project we did for LitNet, which was launched at this year's KKNK. Working with Christine Trüter and Chris Brunette on the project was very rewarding. I approached Chris with the idea and within a week (with Etienne van Heerden's blessing) the project was happening, which was great, considering how difficult it is to raise money for any artistic endeavour these days.

Also, working with the poets was a great experience - it made me realise again that poetry, like plays, really only come alive when "performed". Antjie Krog would make a great actress - someone should cast her in a play or film. The previous year I staged my plays Vrededorp with Francois Toerien and Kurtz with Christine Trüter as directors.

Adapting Conrad's The Heart of Darkness was quite a challenge. I was rather saddened, though, that it was so badly attended at Aardklop, but then most festival audiences wouldn't know the difference between kudu and donkey biltong.

AK: Tell me more about Vonkverse. How did it work?

CF: The idea for Vonkverse resulted from a meeting I had with Chris Brunette. We wanted to package poetry in a digital format for the internet, with sound, music and visual imagery. LitNet put up the money through sponsors and the end result was a collection of poems read by poets like Rustum Kozain, Ingrid de Kok, Peter Snyders, Chris Brunette and Antjie Krog. It was a first venture in this direction for me, although I've made a couple of short films and some documentaries in the past. Christine Trüter did the drawings for the animations and between us we put it together. It's actually a first in terms of combining multimedia with poetry for the internet in South Africa, and hopefully LitNet will allow the project to develop further. The scope is enormous and I believe it is a wonderful way of not only introducing new poets' work but also offering poets the same exposure as, say, musicians enjoy with music videos. Unfortunately it is costly and we hope more sponsors will come on board on the next edition.

AK: And now you've got Parrot Woman lined up for London. I remember seeing it years ago. It broke the record for the show that ran the longest in Grahamstown and was in its ninth year at the time, with Keren Tahor playing the woman. When I heard her speaking later I was surprised to find out that she wasn't Afrikaans. I thought she pulled off the accent very well.

CF: The Parrot Woman has indeed seen something like nine productions since we first staged it with Hannes Muller and Michelle Burgess at the Windybrow festival in 1989. There have also been numerous amateur and school drama productions of the play. The interesting thing is that I've been working on the script too for the past fifteen years, constantly rewriting it, so all of these productions I believe had different endings. The latest version we're doing in London happens to be published as a programme-play script, and will hopefully be the final version. The same goes for all my other plays. I revisit them often, rewriting after productions. You really can't finalise a play script after just one or two productions, especially if you're doing it at a festival and had only three or four weeks to rehearse.

Yes, Keren Tahor made a wonderful parrot woman, but so did Michelle Burgess, Henriëtta Gryffenberg, Susan Loots ... I can't remember all the others. Christine Trüter now plays the role for the London and Oxford productions. It is an endearing role for any woman, considering the circumstance of the character, this Boer woman who, much like Moeder Hannah in Bartho Smit's play of the same name, loses her children to the war, in my play at the hands of her own husband, who kills the children because he sees no future for them in South Africa after the British have defeated the Boers. This patriarchal genocide we've seen on many levels rear its ugly head in South African history. I actually wrote the play while I was doing my national service back in 1988. The suffering that women and children are exposed to due to war is a universal theme. It's happening in Iraq and in parts of Africa right now.

AK: You're playing the role of the soldier. Tough role. Have you played it before?

CF: I actually almost played the part of the parrot woman at the Market Theatre years ago when Henriëtta Gryffenberg lost her voice! But the male actor, Wayne Robins, couldn't stop laughing, so we had to cancel the show. But I did get to play the hans khaki in a production we did in Bloemfontein. The role of the hans khaki, who battles with his own conscience and his unwillingness to fight on the side of the Boers, makes it a role, or rather character, which, like that of the woman in the play, seems to run through much of my work. Stander, Demjanjuk, Vrygrond, Vrededorp, even in Kurtz, you find this outsider who either out of choice or by circumstance finds him- or herself battling with their conscience and seeking new territory, yet they experience the enormous loss of belonging. Afrikaners, and I suppose South Africans as a whole, love their heroes, but ironically we are obsessed with traitors, bandits and outsiders as history rewrites itself all the time.

AK: Of course, the person who goes against society's strain is more interesting than the one maintaining the norm. But what is the norm these days? Is it normal to have been colonised by the grey miasma of the "global consumer society"? It sometimes feels strange to actually be South African, don't you think?

CF: I'll try and answer your misty question. South Africa has always been part of the world, even when it felt like we were isolated. In many ways I believe it was a hoax to make us believe we're special - something I explored in my play Stander. But that's all changed since the early 90s, and so has the world. The concept of an identity of sorts sits more comfortably with me - it offers a broader creative landscape to work with.

Our (South African) stories on their own are not interesting enough to the outside world unless there is a large amount of tokenism involved. The old cliché, "It is how you tell a story that matters", remains the essence, and one you'll recognise in the work of writers and artists whose work reaches beyond cultural boundaries. Your reference to the "global consumer society" is thus not a case of whether we as creative people go along with it or steep ourselves in an insular environment, but a case of how we avoid the greying effect it has on our thoughts and on our work. The global consumer society has been with us from the start of civilisation anyway; we've only recently awakened to it.

AK: Do you feel distinctly "South African" in London?

CF: I feel nothing but South Other-Ness when I'm abroad, or for that matter at home.

AK: You've been living with one foot in the UK for a few years now. How is that working out for you?

CF: I first travelled to the UK in 1995 after a sojourn in Israel and have since been returning there on visits to Europe. London remains one of my favourite cities. I guess it's really because of the vibrant theatre life the British have managed to establish - and when I say theatre I'm not talking about arts festivals, but theatre in theatre venues with theatre-going audiences. Since 2000 I've managed to create working relations with some theatre practitioners in London and this has resulted in my going back on several occasions. I've worked at the Old Vic on a season of staged readings of South African plays. Some of my own plays were presented as staged readings at the Soho theatre and the Gatehouse theatre. Big Boys was staged at the Warehouse theatre in 2003 and voted a "Time Out Critics' Choice" production. I've also worked with Linda Marlowe, who was Steven Berkoff's leading lady for many years, and brought her over to the Aardklop festival. We've since become friends and I'm hoping to bring her latest show, Trapeze, to Cape Town. I've managed to get the Afrikaans translation rights for Michael Frayn's Noises Off and still plan to stage that as Lawwe Geluide in 2007.

AK: Tell me a bit more about the South African Festival at the Oval Theatre. Who's getting it off the ground?

CF: I wasn't involved in putting that together. However, the publisher of New South African Plays, on which I acted as editor, will be launching the publication of plays during this festival on 9th May.

AK: Are you busy with a lot of projects at once?

CF: Producing and sometimes directing my own work requires that I multitask, like most theatre people these days. I, however, usually work on some or other piece of writing in between, but allow for three to four months of the year during which I just write. I've recently started the long process of getting my plays of the past decade ready for publication as I've not submitted anything to a publisher since 1993. I'm also putting together a collection of Afrikaans plays translated into English with a British publisher for 2007.

AK: Are there things you want to do that don't get done because of time or financial constraints?

CF: I get to do most of the work I set out to do; I think some forty plays in less than twenty years of my involvement with theatre shows that I've seldom allowed financial constraints to get in the way. I guess I'm still comforted by the romantic notion that you have to make sacrifices; besides, when it comes to money I'm rather naive.

AK: How dependent are you on other people to produce work, or are you given a relatively free rein in whatever you want to do?

CF: Working with the arts festivals in South Africa in a way makes one dependent on their financial support to get a production together, especially if your work does not always pander to audiences. I've been lucky that my work is respected in certain circles. I wouldn't, however, stop exploring and experimenting as a playwright.

LitNet: 15 June 2006

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