Athol Fugard’s latest play Exits and Entrances has a gay man at its centre. The late great Andre Huguenet, South Africa’s most acclaimed actor, was also a gay man struggling to come to terms with himself and his place in an oppressive society, long before South Africa became a democracy.
We meet the exiting Huguenet when he is past his prime and his great theatrical career is rapidly in decline. He is running out of money, opportunities and life. He is a lonely, embittered and increasingly desperate man, battling all the issues associated with an ageing queen in a prejudiced and oppressive country.
Huguenet is masterfully played by well known South African actor, Sean Taylor, who now lives and works in Australia. Taylor captures the pathos and magnificence of this great Shakespearean actor and troubled man. His voice is resonantly brilliant and his acting skill superb. You will go a long way to find another performance of this calibre.
Huguenet’s foil is the young and intense Athol Fugard who is entering his career and has much to learn from the experienced and dramatic actor. Fugard is equally brilliantly portrayed by the young and sensitive actor, Jason Ralph, who so beautifully captures Fugard’s personality, idiosynchrasies and particular mannerisms. His characterisation is magical, and he handles Fugard’s character with such integrity, respect and attention to detail.
I caught up with Jason Ralph over a cup of coffee and we discussed the play, the actors, and his experiences in the production:
John French: Jason, in your own words, tell us essentially what Exits and Entrances is all about.
Jason Ralph: Exits and Entrances is Athol Fugard’s latest work, which premiered in South Africa in June after its world premiere at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles last year. The title says it all: it is about the exit of a major theatrical icon in South Africa at the time, called Andre Huguenet, who was South Africa’s answer to Sir Laurence Olivier. It is the exit of this gay man who has given up on his vision and his dreams of Afrikaans theatre in South Africa, and at the same time we see the entrance of Athol Fugard, who was at the time unknown. We meet the young Athol Fugard at 24. He has just landed the part of the old shepherd in Andre Huguenet’s production of Oedipus the King. The Blood Knot, Fugard’s first international success, only happens when he is 29, five years later. Athol tells us the true story of how he shared a dressing room with the famous and brilliant South African actor, Andre Huguenet.
Have you met Fugard yourself?
No, which is a bit intimidating because Sean Taylor who plays Andre Huguenet, and our director Janice Honeyman, and Director of The Baxter, Mannie Mannim, all know him. For research purposes, I tracked a lot of video footage on him. There is an essence to Fugard, a spirit that was very easy to pick up on the video footage.
Fugard, now 74, and living in California, is considered to be the greatest active playwright in the English speaking world and only the plays of Shakespeare are produced with greater frequency. What do you think his relevance is today in contemporary post-Apartheid South Africa?
Fugard himself said he found it quite limiting being labelled a political playwright. All his stories are about people. They are very specific in terms of region, and the fact that they were set in South Africa means that there are going to be political spin-offs.
He is a great storyteller and his characters are incredibly human, incredibly grounded, and very specific. Although his plays were set in those times, they are all heart-wrenching stories.
Exits and Entrances is one of these heart wrenching stories about Andre Huguenet who did so much for theatre in South Africa, and flew and performed all over the world, and ended up, Athol claims, committing suicide in 1961. Just like Athol’s father in the play, Andre Huguenet was “dying of unimportance” and other gay related issues.
Andre Huguenet was gay?
The great Andre Huguenet was definitely a homosexual, which in those times couldn’t have been the easiest thing. Andre’s strong theatrical persona was larger than life, and he talks about being gay. I don’t want to give it all away, but that story line is definitely there. There are some beautiful lines where he talks about wanting to stand out in the light of day as his true self, the “dopper moffie”.
Is director, Janice Honeyman, trying to bring across any particular message with this production of the play?
I think she is trying to be true to Fugard’s writing. Janice is amazing in terms of telling a story, and she is taking the moment that Fugard has given us and lifting it.
What has it been like working with theatre stalwart, Sean Taylor? Have you learnt anything from him?
Oh, God yes! It is just like life imitating Art. Fugard was like me: young, idealistic and hungry and Andre Huguenet, being the great visionary he was, passes down the torch to the young Athol. Fugard at 24 cannot believe the skill that the great actor has, and hangs on to his every word and learns everything that he can from him. There are moments that are so mirrored in terms of Huguenet and Fugard, and Sean Taylor and me. Every night I watch Sean and he is an incredibly skilled performer. His technique is absolutely amazing. Emotionally Sean has to go to places that are not easy to reach, but he goes there every night and never misses the mark. I am learning every single night that I am on stage with him.
What have you personally learnt as a performer from this production?
This production has taken me back to the basics, especially just coming out of The Rocky Horror Show, which is so larger than life. The part I play here is a role where I have to listen actively; be in the moment, and keep it fresh.
You were in The Rocky Horror Show. Which role did you play?
I played both Riff Raff and Frankenfurter [at different times]. It has been quite difficult, because just before I started this, I ended a year’s run with The Rocky Horror Show, and the genres are so completely different.
What are your views on the state of South African theatre today?
I can only talk from my perspective in terms of what I am doing and the people I hang out with. I see a lot of self- initiated work at the moment. There is a lot of theatre happening both in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Personally I feel blessed and I think things are very positive.
Exits and Entrances is heavy and deep and serious: it is also seriously brilliant. If this genre of theatre appeals to you, you cannot find better. Go and see it!
Exits and Entrances is running at The Baxter Theatre Complex in Cape Town from 18 November – 10 December. Bookings through Computicket, or The Baxter Theatre on (021) 680-3989. Block bookings, charities, or dinner/show packages – contact Sharon on (021) 680-3962.