BY BILLY SUTER
MANY members of the local theatre community appeared on Durban’s Playhouse Opera stage tonight (September 26) to pay final respects and entertain or speak in memory of South African theatre stalwart Themi Venturas.
Zimbabwean-born Themi died, aged 59, of pancreatic cancer on September 11, some six months or so after initial diagnosis of the disease. He is survived by his wife Trish and sons Matthew and Alexander, both twentysomethings.
Virtually the entire downstairs auditorium of the large Playhouse Opera theatre was filled with relatives, friends, colleagues and fans of the popular, versatile and award-winning performer, at the 6pm memorial.
Encouraged to bring a plate of eats and a stone or pebble which will be used later to build a memorial to Themi, on an unnamed spot that was very special to him, visitors mingled for a long time after a memorial programme that was, by turns, moving, uplifting and amusing.
The ceremony began with piper Ken Mustard, of the Natal Mounted Rifles Band, snaking through the audience to a stage featuring two giant screens, showing Themi’s face, between a backdrop depicting stained-glass church windows. This was the backdrop used by Themi in his stagings of the Easter oratorio, The Messiah (from Handel’s Messiah).
Actress Mpume Mthombeni, who had long worked with Themi in various productions, then appeared for a lively praise poem, after which actresses and Themi’s longtime pals and colleagues, Johannesburg-based Brenda Sakellarides (nee Radloff) and Nothando Zungu, spoke of their life and times with, and respect for, the great man.
Durban theatre doyenne Caroline Smart encouraged the audience to stand for one last, hearty standing ovation for Themi, and another early part of the programme had cast members of Themi’s early stage success, Good Vibrations, performing a poignant He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother from the hit show. The vocal line-up comprised Hughie Louw (who flew in from Johannesburg), Clinton Philander, Percy Smith and Arnie Field.
Members of the Kajal Bagwandeen dance group performed, and another entertainment highlight was a performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by guitarists Rowan Stuart, Andy Turrell and Barry Thomson, as well as keyboardist Calli Thomson, members of the cast of the early Venturas musical, The Guitar That Rocked the World.
Durban theatre stalwart, Prof Mervyn McMurtry, spoke of his long friendship with Themi, Aaron McIlroy raised smiles with his recollections of amusing Themi sayings over the years, and Lisa Bobbert read a biblical verse from the Old Testament, interpretted in dance by members of the Kajal Bagwandeen dance group.
Steven Stead performed the “What a piece of work is a man” monologue from the Bard’s Hamlet, reflecting on the human condition.
As he left the stage, Stead dropped a pebble into a bucket, where each artist on stage placed a stone, and as he did so, whispered another line from Hamlet: “Goodnight, sweet prince… and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Fifteen members of the Young Performers’ Project cast that recently starred in a Durban revival of the musical Footloose, originally directed locally by Themi and which featured him this year as supervising director to Daisy Spencer, closed the memorial programme with the moving Seasons of Love from Rent.
The most poignant part of the evening came with addresses by Themi’s sons, the younger of whom, Alexander, broke down as he spoke lovingly of his father, a man who was extremely proud of his two boys.
Also very moving was video footage of an interview with Themi reflecting on his mortality and expressing contentment with a life well and fully lived, doing something he had always loved.
An important, groundbreaking and widely respected member of the South African arts community for some three decades, Themi was an award-winning director, writer, performer, musician, producer and theatre manager of multiple venues and theatre companies.
He was also the mastermind of the now-annual Durban International Blues Festival, video footage from which was also shown at the service, Themi’s mischievous humour coming to the fore in his commentary of the event.
Themi directed, and in many cases produced, more than 500 productions ranging from revues to musical theatre, comedy, Shakespeare, opera; new South African works and ceremonies/corporate events.
He will be greatly missed, as I wrote in a remembrance book placed in the foyer of the Playhouse, where many left special words for a special man.
Themi will never be forgotten for what he has given the South African arts community. Rest in peace, friend.