Arts and Culture 2007-2015

06Jun

Profile: Janet Suzman

First appeared
Thursday, 06 June 2013

 

“I’m not English,” Janet Suzman tells me. “People just think I’m English because I talk nice” – here her accent flattens ever so slightly, her tone of voice self-mocking. “But really I’m a Joburg girl, born and bred.”

It’s after 10pm, and we’re talking over a crackling phone line. Suzman is in the Cape for a few days before returning to her home town to reprise her role in Lara Foot’s play Solomon and Marion, which she first performed in 2011 (the production will travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and then transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). She’s just stepped off a plane from Durban, having spent most of the week in and around the farming communities of East Griqualand.

Suzman’s trip to Matatiele, a tiny town in the foothills of the Drakesberg, was with the NGO African Solutions to African Problems (ASAP). One of their projects is the establishment of school libraries – so educational materials are on her mind, in particular the tension between English-language education and developing literacy in ‘indigenous’ South African languages.

She has also, while in the Eastern Cape, been reflecting on ‘Englishness’ and its curious legacy in the region. Marion, the character she plays, is from the Eastern Cape – like many people you find there, Suzman notes, she’s “totally English but at the same time very South African.” She is what Suzman calls “Grahamstown English”: with settler heritage, she is “independent, stoical, but with an ironic and sparky sense of humour”.

Marion and Janet are very different, but the actress admits there is “a lurking feeling in people’s minds that I am English”. After all, Dame Janet Suzman has been an icon of the British stage more or less since she made her debuts in London and Stratford in the early 1960s.

Suzman was cast in John Barton and Peter Hall’s ambitious 1963 adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, The Wars of the Roses. She would subsequently achieve renown for each of her renditions of Shakespeare’s female characters – foremost among them, Cleopatra. “There is no other part for a woman like it,” she declares. “No playwright has come close.” And she ought to know; she has done Pinter, Albee, Brecht, Racine, Marlowe, Ibsen and dozens of others.

Recalling The Wars of the Roses, she observes: “It’s odd to think of it now, after a fifty-year gap, but those productions were game changers. We knew we were part of something special, but we didn’t know that it would change the face of English theatre. I’m tremendously indebted to the actors and directors I worked with; that experience was the foundation on which my career was built. It was thrilling. I seem to remember on one occasion I had half a bottle of champagne before going onstage!”

I tentatively suggest to her that, given twenty-first century habits of cultural consumption, it would be difficult to replicate the Barton-Hall phenomenon (audiences watched three consecutive plays in one day). Suzman disagrees: “You should never underestimate an audience – there is still a great desire to ‘plunge in’. Yes, in England, as elsewhere in the world, the standard of language education is lower. The fear of what I call ‘deep language’ is appreciable. But when people go to the theatre, Shakespeare in particular, they enter a pact; they want to be stretched.”

Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s language is a problem, particularly in a multilingual country like South Africa where most people have English as a second language. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ‘Englishness’ is problematic in this country because he cannot be dissociated from the colonial enterprise and its long afterlife.

This has potentially severe consequences for the South African ‘expat’ who makes it big as a Shakespearean on the English stage. He or she is liable to encounter all kinds of antagonism from his or her former compatriots – just ask Antony Sher, whose visits to stage Shakespeare’s plays in the country of his birth (in 1995, for Titus Andronicus at the Market Theatre, and in 2009, for The Tempest at the Baxter Theatre) have not been entirely happy affairs.

Suzman, however, has not had this experience – primarily because she never really “left” South Africa. She has been involved in a major theatrical project here in every decade since she appeared in the first production at the Market Theatre (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1976). She returned in 1987 to direct John Kani and Joanna Weinberg in Othello, controversially breaking the boycott imposed by Equity, the British actors’ union.

In 1997 she took on The Cherry Orchard again, this time adapting it to a post-apartheid South African setting under the title The Free State. Then, in 2006, she directed a seminal production of Hamlet at the Baxter. It was important for Shakespeare in this country because it allowed the play to be ‘local’ without attempting to contrive an allegorical meaning; after a process of ‘colour-blind casting’, for instance, audiences could identify South African ethnic or cultural identities onstage but the play did not become ‘about’ racial politics in our terms.

When putting on Shakespeare, Suzman affirms, “you don’t need to cross the t’s and dot the i’s to make sure that audiences ‘get’ the contemporary resonances. You don’t need lots of visual cues and props and costumes to make the connections; let people pick up whatever signals they want.”

She quotes a favourite description of Shakespeare’s plays as being “like a magnet to iron filings – they seem to attract whatever crises are in the air. I mean, Shakespeare wrote in a politically and socially and economically dangerous time. When people pay attention they can sniff that scent like bloodhounds. Again, it’s about trusting your audience.”

The 2006 Hamlet will be remembered for other, tragic reasons. Cast member Brett Goldin was murdered shortly before the show (a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company) moved to Stratford. The Cape Town theatre community was devastated by his death. Lara Foot began writing a play in response to her shock and grief.

Initially titled Reach and staged in 2007, it developed into Solomon and Marion – a work whose “complex genesis”, as Suzman describes it, shows how “Brett’s murder roiled in Lara, as it roiled in me. Marion has lost her son. So the play expresses that sense of meaningless loss, and of trying to come to terms with the waste of a life.”

It’s also about “reaching endlessly across the spaces between people – gaps of age, gender, race. South Africans are more honest about the need to do that. And perhaps that’s why I have loved working with South African actors; there is an emotional easiness which you don’t often find in England. Looking back on my career, I realise that I have been most at home with South African theatre makers: Barney Simon, Mannie Manim, John Kani.”

In Solomon and Marion she stars opposite relative newcomer Khayalethu Anthony. “I enjoy Khaya’s openness and spontaneity. I’ve got a lot of stage experience, he has a little, but we both have those wonderful moments when a text demands more from you as an actor than you think you’ve got.” That, for Suzman, is the purpose of acting: “Some people become actors because they want to be famous. But for me the pleasure lies in going into another world, having things asked of you that you didn’t know you could deliver.”

 

 

* Solomon and Marion is at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square from 10 to 30 June and at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio from 10 to 20 July.

 

  

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