DAME Janet Suzman will join the company of 60 performers at the unique Voorkamerfest to be held from September 6 to 8 in the West Coast town of Darling, home of ace satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, who is also a festival attraction.
“I am the spare wheel at the Voorkamerfest”, says Uys. “If any of the artists have to suddenly leave because of family problems or illness, I’m in there as understudy and perform. The show must and will go on!
“I also have two shows in reserve to do at Evita se Perron once the various show-routes are sold out. We don’t want anyone to come all this way for nothing.”
As for Dame Janet Suzman at the VKF?
Says Uys: “Our friendship goes back to the 1970s, when I was a student in London and she starred in Royal Shakespeare productions. Our password was Vrystaat! During the 1970s and 1980s I would take her my latest play for safekeeping and she would keep them all in a box in her garage, just in case the National Party stopped loving Tannie Evita and started hunting me!”
The full 2019 Voorkamerfest line-up ranges from physical theatre to choir, dance, magic, storytelling and drama. In light of the strong musical component on offer this year – folk, world music, instrumental, traditional and classical – the festival will be dedicated to the late Johnny Clegg.
Artists and groups this year include Wendy Oldfield, Bryan Miles (mentalist), Tara Notcutt (physical theatre), Jenny and the Jameses (Irish music trio), guitarist and poet Jitsvinger with trumpeter Keegan Steenkamp (heritage music), Lungiswe Plaatjies (Ancient Voices ensemble), Matthew Reid (French music group), Mawonga Gayiya (magician), Sindiwe Magona (storyteller), Tertia Visser accompanying the Probz Trio (piano and opera), Hatchetman band, Vikee Rayner and Neill Venter (folk duo), and Sabu (multi-instrumentalist).
When Janet Suzman tries to remember why Shakespeare has always meant so much to her, she says her English teacher at school did it. She helped her to see how vivid and unusual his use of language and how interesting were his dramatic characters.
So when Suzman graduated from WITS, she left South Africa to study acting at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Peter Hall spotted her for his Stratford seasons of Shakespeare’s history plays, starting with The Wars of the Roses, marking Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and her long career took off.
For a decade she played major roles at Stratford and The Aldwych Theatre, London. Of her Cleopatra in 1972/3, The Sunday Times critic said: ‘No-one has equalled her performance in erotic power, or the way she combined the consummate politician and the regal fish-wife’.
In 1980, Suzman returned for Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy in Barton’s decathlon, The Greeks. She twice won the Evening Standard Award (for a Fugard and a Chekhov play), and was nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards for Nicholas and Alexandra.
Her many feature and TV films include the Clayhanger Trilogy, Mountbatten – Last Viceroy of India, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Singing Detective, A Dry White Season, Fellini’s ‘E La Nave Va’, not to mention Nuns on the Run.
She always remained involved with South Africa, the land of her birth, and is a Patron of both The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, and of The Market Theatre in Johannesburg.
She became interested in directing and asked John Kani to play the title role in Othello in 1987, seeing it as a protest play about apartheid, and she also filmed it for Britain’s Channel Four TV.
Suzman directed her own adaptation of Brecht’s Setzuan – aka The Good Person of Sharkville – setting it in a mythical Joburg township. In 1997 she re-wrote Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, aka The Free State, for The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in celebration of a newly liberated South Africa.
Her production of Hamlet for The Baxter Theatre opened the Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s Complete Works Festival at The Swan in 2006 in spite of the brutal murder of the young actor playing Guildenstern.
The RSC has for the last decade initiated a bursary in his name (The Brett Goldin Award) enabling young South Africans to study theatre in the UK. She ended that year-long season playing Volumnia in Coriolanus.
She has appeared in two plays by South African writers: Craig Higginson’s The Dream of the Dog at The Finborough and Trafalgar Studios, and Lara Foot’s Solomon and Marion which toured Cape Town, Johannesburg, the Hilton Festival, Washington DC and Edinburgh before a sell-out run at The Print Room in London in 2014.
This year she directed Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes in London. She directed Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall in Antony and Cleopatra at The Liverpool Playhouse, and again at Chichester in 2012, and in 2015 The Marriage of Figaro, a first time for an opera, which she finds “both humbling and thrilling in equal measure”.
Suzman has garnered a fistful of honorary degrees from varied universities including Cape Town, has written a book called Not Hamlet, which Ian McKellen kindly called “a wonder…should be on every best-seller list”.
She was made DBE in 2011, received the Freedom of the City of London and is an Hon Life Fellow of The Shakespeare Association of Great Britain. But she is most proud to be Chair of the British Committee for the Re-unification of the Parthenon Marbles, so she’ll have some to show off when she loses hers!
The Voorkamerfest, in association with the Fugard Theatre, was founded in 2004 by Inge Bos and Wim Visser with the help of Uys, the residents of Darling and invaluable support from local businesses.
What sets this festival apart is the surprise factor – audiences don’t know which performers they will be seeing until they are seated in the front rooms (voorkamers) of homes spread throughout the community.
There are seven colour-coded routes, each with three shows presented in three different homes. Patrons are ferried by minibus taxis from Evita se Perron, the festival hub, to venues that range from grand old Cape Dutch manors to RDP houses.
Routes are scheduled for 5pm on Friday, September 6; at 12pm and 5pm on Saturday, September 7; and 12pm on Sunday, September 8.
Tickets are available online and can be collected at the Voorkamerfest box office at Evita se Perron on the festival weekend. Tickets cost R210 each on Friday and R270 each on Saturday and Sunday. They and are available through Quicket and www.voorkamerfest-darling.co.za (R10 from each ticket sold will go to The Darling Trust NGO).
Patrons are advised to arrive an hour before taxis depart for the shows and advance booking is highly recommended.