Strangers on the Train
By Nantie Steyn
So an Afrikaner, an Englishman and a Frenchman are travelling together on a train....
(Oh no... that was a very old joke.)
...an Afrikaner, an Englishman and a French woman are travelling together in a claustrophobic 2nd class coupe on the old South African Railways. Or so it would seem, mostly because of the mounted, stuffed springbok head that becomes the fourth member of a fantastic and surreal ménage a quatre. Coupe, the award-winning one-act collaboration between Sylvaine Strike, Sue Pam Grant and the members of the Fortune Cookie Company, is back on stage at the Market Theatre. There is no punch line, but it's funny as hell.
The play, for which Sylvaine was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award in 2006, only had six performances at the Grahamstown Festival that year, and a short run at Wits thereafter. The Market is giving it what Sue calls, a proper run.
In spite of the old-South-Africa indicators (springbok emblem, red-brown exterior of the coach and whites-only cast), the piece is not set in a particular period of time, according to Sue. "It's composite time, old time, new time," she says, in spite of its historical resonance. A journey on a train is a totally suspended space, so you are going to get heightened behaviour, and a heightened experience."
There are plenty of examples in narrative fiction and film of this. From Murder on the Orient Express to Throw Momma from the Train, the intimate proximity of strangers on a train is somehow always fertile ground for bizarre events. A journey by rail is a strange, dark, in-between place. You meet people that you will most likely never see again. There is a strange kind of liberation in that. You don't know them, and they don't know you. For the duration of the trip from A to B, you can be someone else, or perhaps, be free to be who you really are.
For Sue, the play is about "vulnerability... and about the fragility of living. We come with our masks, and our battle gear in different forms, and ultimately, you start stripping away stuff. It's about revealing our own identity, our own vulnerability."
Those that have taken a train to, well, anywhere, will relate to the fact that such a journey invariably combines the oddest of bedfellows. And the three squeezed into coupe 3B are as disparate and alien as one could imagine.
Brain Webber is the obese and unfortunate Francois Le Grange, an Afrikaner struggling to find his way pretty much from before the lights go out. His scuffles through the audience, waddles through every possible niche of the Barney Simon theatre while looking for the right platform. He is bombastic, and loud, and we fear for the space that he is going to need in the compartment.
Gerhard Bester takes the part of Dwayne Buckman: the nicest, meekest guy in the world until he gets pushed too far, or maybe more accurately, fiddled with too much.
Sylvaine plays Felicite Strasbourg, perhaps the most mysterious of the characters. She is delicate and beautiful, and disarmingly friendly. She makes a great effort to engage with her fellow travellers, in spite of the fact that one could be tempted to call them complete losers. She is also the only foreigner. If the journey of the work is not set in any specific time, it is definitely set in South Africa, and what she is doing here remains a puzzle. Although the universe of the coupe is free of geographical constraints, and in that sense, they are all foreigners; Felicite is the one that appears to be truly lost. At the end, when the other two go their separate ways, she gets back on the train clutching the springbok head.
Each of the three characters speaks only their own language. It is a funny and clever comment on how impossible it is to communicate. The only common ground the characters find, linguistically, is "born up a tree" when they are about to go for dinner, and a moment in which they translate "egg" "oeuf" and "eier". In the confines of the compartment, their language becomes physical and intimate. But they connect, somehow, and slowly begin to reveal themselves.
This revelation is offered to the audience in an edited format. The set is built on a revolving platform, with the coupe (which doubles as the dining car) on the one side, the corridor on the other, and the exterior of the train on a third. It is moved, always in the same direction, by The Shunter (Toni Morkel), making it possible for the narrative to change direction without losing energy.
The movement is sometimes fast, even violent. The physical aspects of the production are beautifully married to the metaphor and its meaning. The journey our characters undertake is not always a smooth one. The train sometimes hits a tunnel, and the flickering light makes it difficult to see what is going on. Things become uncertain, and threatening. For no apparent reason, the train will stop in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, before it simply starts up again, and travels on.
I asked Sue if she would call the play a tragi-comedy and she said, "Definitely. It is the only genre that I choose to work in the comedy is in the tragedy, and people laugh when they relate. That is why they laugh at the most tragic moment."
Coupe is a comic and insightful portrait of three people flung together for a short while, and of how they both succeed and fail to communicate. They share their most vulnerable selves for a day and a night, but only in the end do they share their names. And then they go their separate ways.
And later he caught a bus and she a train And all there was between them then Was rain. — Party Piece, Brian Patten
It's on at the Barney Simon Theatre until 26 October.
Add a review or comment on Coup�: