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Janet Suzman On ... Her Career & Dream of the Dog

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Janet Suzman stars in the UK premiere of fellow South African Craig Higginson's play Dream of the Dog, which open for a four week limited season at the Finborough Theatre tonight (29 April, previews from 27 April 2010).

Suzman has previously played many leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, culminating in a memorable Cleopatra, and, most recently, Volumnia for The Complete Works Festival. Her films include The Draughtsman's Contract, The Singing Detective, Fellini's The Boat Sails On, and Nicholas and Alexandra for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe awards for Best Actress.

She is a founding Patron of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, where she appeared in the Market's opening production in 1976 – The Death of Bessie Smith, directed by Market co-founder Barney Simon; and in 1987 she returned to direct her long-time colleague John Kani in Othello. Suzman has been actively involved in developing the script of Dream of the Dog.

Janet Suzman: The Market Theatre was once extraordinarily famous when apartheid was the regime in power in South Africa. It was founded in 1976 by me and a group of like-minded people who needed a place to express their loathing of the status quo. The shooting of the white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche and subsequent rioting has uncovered that, in the ‘new’ South Africa, the underlying black-white divide exists that has infected a great deal of our planet.

Racism is huge. We must use all our efforts to suppress the worst instincts of human beings. The fact that the BNP exists is quite sad; it is a tawdry little affair that holds a flag for nastiness. Politically, I’ve always been a liberal and a democrat. I’m almost attracted to the idea of a hung parliament: we need to break the two-party system mould with fresh blood. I think that this is a jolly interesting time.

This is a play about two perfectly okay, cogent people who find that, in the end, there is a divide: one is black, one is white. So it does present a bleak view of South Africa and humanity in general. However, it is written with a lot of care and subtlety about the things that pull people apart. It’s quite an emotional play. A woman pays for the education of a young black man. Thirty years later he comes back to find that there is unfinished business between them, and this is where the play starts off. It is a thoughtful play: it examines, rather than incites. It’s a grown-up play…not a flag-waving, tub-thumping, vicious or sloganeering play at all.

The writer of this play, Craig Higginson, is our dramaturge at the Market Theatre. Somehow I got involved in the reading of Dream of the Dog. There was tremendous potential in the play, though I didn’t see it as a fully achieved piece of writing yet. It began to be a sort of collaboration between Craig and I – though at a distance, as he was 6,000 miles away! Thank god for email! The play has developed a great deal. Plays don’t just spring fully formed from a playwright’s forehead, like Athena out of Zeus. They need to be worked on, unless you are a genius like Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter.

My last play was the west end revival of Whose Life is it Anyway with Kim Cattrall. But the transition to a great little fringe venue like the Finborough has not been a big step for me because I have dived into the fringe my entire career. I prefer it to the mainstream. I’m not terribly fascinated by west end limelight… I like the idea of experiment. Sometimes the mainstream is a little bit too predictable... People play safe, and I like to not always play safe.

All classics are modern, otherwise they wouldn’t be classics: they’d be stuffy old books on a library shelf. There shouldn’t really be a distinction. Modern writing makes the same demands on an actor: you have to dig around, find what is relevant to now, what makes a character express himself today. I wrote an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, and set it in the new South Africa: it is a story about the new order overtaking the old. All the best playwrights have been involved in the theatre: Mr Shakespeare was, so was Mr Chekhov. If a playwright is in the theatre, then they are in the marketplace with their actors.

I think playwriting is the most difficult of all the theatrical disciplines. Everything that is not clear has to be expressed in what is said … excuse me if that sounds paradoxical! A huge amount is intonation. Unlike a novel there is no time to expand the background of or the secret thoughts of a character. Consider then what has to be packed into a very short sentence that is coming out of a character’s mouth.

My first directing job was at the Market Theatre. I chose Othello because, in 1987, I viewed it as a protest play: a work written by a chap called William Shakespeare who understood very clearly what apartheid was about. That is what my view of Othello is: a white man trashes a black man’s life. Rather like a ship sailing erratically depending on the wind changing, I have sailed into directing waters every now and then. I still find it fascinating. I am going to be doing a Liverpool-based production of Anthony and Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall in the autumn.

In those days, we never did ‘breakthrough roles’. We did proper apprenticeships; now everyone thinks that you breakthrough like it is a piece of glass into the sunny sunshine of stardom. I suppose I was lucky to have many ‘breakthroughs’, but one didn’t think of them like that. I was asked to join the RSC and got a huge amount of parts. Most things work best in the company vein, when people working together. I got an Oscar nomination. I played Cleopatra. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve played everything I’ve wanted to play. There are very few fascinating parts for older woman, there are no female King Lears… something you just have to shrug about.

I was born and brought up in South Africa. I have a quite unreasoning interest in the country: after all these years I still feel very connected to it. It is like one’s mother: I have an umbilical connection to it, even if I don’t talk to it very often. I’ve just been to Cape Town where the (Athol) Fugard Theatre is about to be opened. It’s about time, as without a doubt, he and Wole Soyinka are, head and shoulders, the best playwrights that Africa has produced. In a funny, rather grand way the English speak of Africa as if it is one place – and it isn’t. If you look at a map, it is enormous. South Africa is a very different country to Nigeria, or any other country you care to name on that giant continent. You wouldn’t say a ‘European’ play, you would say a ‘Spanish’ play – so we must not say an ‘African’ play. If Africa is coming more into our theatrical consciousness, it is because of a wonderfully growing self-assurance amongst the African writing and acting fraternity, who are producing really interesting black playwrights and actors and directors. About time!

- Janet Suzman was speaking to Jude Offord

Dream of the Dog, which is directed by Katie McAleese and produced by Meeting Point Productions, continues until 22 May 2010.

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