SA Power 100 2013: Dame Janet

SA Power 100 2013: Dame Janet Suzman

Veteran South African actress of stage and screen

SA Power 100 2013: Dame Janet


Veteran South African actress of stage and screen

Bullet biography
Born: Johannesburg, 1939
Education: Kingsmead College, Johannesburg. Studied at the University of the Witwatersrand before moving to London to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art
Came to the UK: 1959
Career trajectory: She joined the RSC in 1963 and quickly became one of the London stage’s most important classical actresses. She has also appeared in many films and TV series.
We last saw her in: the West End in ‘Dream of the Dog’ at Trafalgar Studios and in SKY series ‘Sinbad’ as Sinbad’s grandmother, Safia.

Actress and director Dame Janet Suzman was born in Johannesburg, the daughter of a tobacco wholesaler who was also the athlete who sat on the South African Olympic Commission. Her aunt was the fearless Helen Suzman the anti-apartheid activist and politician. She was married to the director Trevor Nunn (they divorced 1986) and has one son. In 2011 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and has half a dozen honorary degrees from British universities and UCT. She is a patron of Dignity in Dying and campaigns for a change in the law on assisted dying.

Did you find the approach to drama was very different here than in South Africa?
I joined the University Players and did stuff at Wits which was pretty hit and miss. Nobody taught me about acting there and I came to the UK to learn. And I wanted to be in touch with the best writing in the world which Britain was then.

How did you get your first foothold in British acting?
It is a slippery slope and I was very lucky. I got an agent as a student and worked straight away, as an apprentice in repertory before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964.

What is your best memory of your career?
Going to the Oscars in 1971 when I was nominated for Nicholas and Alexandra. Jane Fonda won it that year for Klute.

What would be your toughest memory?
The murder of young actor Brett Goldin in a production of Hamlet at the Baxter Theatre in 2006 that I was directing. His body was found, with a friend, Richard Bloom, shot through the head, on a traffic island on Easter Monday. He was my boy Guildenstern.

What advice would you give to young South African actors coming here?
Don’t do it. It’s not a profession. It relies too much on luck. And the values have changed — everybody wants to be a celebrity now.

Who has influenced you most and who would you like to influence now?
Without a doubt Barney Simon. Thousands of people would say that. Theatrically he is the most influential person I know. The founding of the Market Theatre in 1976 was a great moment in my life. It was thrilling to have a place you could go and cock a snook at the status quo.

What do you miss most about South Africa?
The big smiles, the sunshine, the sea and the social easiness which is very seductive.

How are you coping with the lack of roles for the older woman?
There are no great parts for women who are older, no Lear, Hamlet, Othello roles. Older women are left with granny roles when a few of us are ready to play King Lear, say. Only Cleopatra stands head and shoulders above the others. Even in Shakespeare there are no sustained soliloquies for women showing their interior thinking. Now I am a director first, actor second. I find directing very rewarding.

Do you return to work much in South Africa?
When a good play or film shows up, I’m happy to. I directed Othello there in the late 80s and a decade later I adapted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (aka The Free State) to pay homage to liberation. Similarly Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan became The Good Woman of Sharpeville. I am returning to the Baxter Theatre to perform in Solomon and Marion in June.

You’ve recently written a book called Not Hamlet.
It’s my second book (the first is Acting with Shakespeare: Three Comedies) and is six very ‘readable’ meditations on the frail condition of women in drama. Michael Boyd of the RSC said, “A thoughtful kick up the arse to conspiracy theorists and the patriarchy.” It’s going like hot-cakes on Amazon.