All the world's his stage


He's South Africa’s greatest theatre legend, a living icon showered with international awards and said to be the most widely produced playwright in the world after William Shakespeare.

But there are no airs and graces about the elderly man who steps out of the car outside the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.

Wearing a floppy hat, fleecy jacket and comfortable takkies and clutching a big flask of coffee he looks as if he should be heading on a hiking trip somewhere remote and dusty.

Despite his casual attire the security guard standing at the door recognises him instantly. “Hello, Mr Fugard,” he says. It really is him! Athol Fugard, the genius wordsmith responsible for masterpieces such as The Road to Mecca, Boesman and Lena and Tsotsi, on which the ­Oscar-winning film is based.

The 79-year-old greets us politely but becomes a bit camera-shy when we ask him to pose for a picture outside the theatre named in his honour when it opened last year.

“I wish they’d take that sign down,” he grumbles, rolling his eyes at the big lettering bearing his name above the entrance. “Why can’t they replace it with one that simply says, ‘Welcome’?”

It reportedly took theatre boss Eric Abraham more than a year to get permission to name the building after him.

Fugard, who’s based in America these days, was initially dead set against it because he thought there were people more deserving.

But clearly the 280-seat theatre on the edge of historic District Six is a great source of pride for the writer who will be directing his new play, The Bird Watchers, here until June.

“Just look at it – it’s absolutely magnificent,” he says almost reverentially as he shows us into the rehearsal room with its wooden floors, exposed brick walls and gothic windows.

Decades ago the building used to be a church – which is rather fitting because for more than 50 years theatre has been Fugard’s religion. And with his intense brown eyes and grey beard he does look a bit like an Old Testament prophet, even when he’s wearing his floppy hat.

Between the ’60s and ’90s he was one of apartheid’s fiercest critics, using his plays to expose the daily doses of brutality to which ordinary people were subjected.

His more than 30 works are still performed internationally. Over the years they’ve won more awards than he can remember but in June he’ll receive the biggest of them all when he’s honoured with a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in New York.

STATE OF PLAY Athol Fugard is one of the world’s most popular playwrights. It’s estimated that every day at least five of his works are staged in theatres across the globe.

Read more about this remarkable man in YOU, 26 May 2011. CLICK HERE to follow us on Twitter.

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