South African husband and wife

‘The First Actress’ staged at the Theatro Technis, Camden.

South African husband and wife acting team star in The First Actress

South African actors Sifiso and Melonie Mazibuko, studying at Ohio State University, star in the stage play ‘The First Actress’ in London, a play about Britain’s first actress Margaret Hughes and the history of women on stage.

South African husband and wife

‘The First Actress’ staged at the Theatro Technis, Camden.

'The First Actress' staged at the Theatro Technis, Camden.
‘The First Actress’ staged at the Theatro Technis, Camden.

Believed to be staged for the first time since its premiere run in 1911, The First Actress is the second performance featuring two South African actors visiting London from Ohio State University this summer.

Husband and wife acting team Sifiso and Melonie Mazibuko came on tour to London having completed their second year of a three year post graduate degree in Theatre Studies at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Branches, their first play, was performed as a workshop piece at the start of their tour, and The First Actress is a collaborative piece between London based Palindrome Productions and the Department of Theatre at Ohio State University.

It is more than a hundred years since suffragette play The First Actress debuted on the London stage. However, some would argue that many of the issues raised in the play and by the players at the time are as relevant today as they were in 1911.

“There are so few female roles out there, and a huge amount of female actors going for those roles. It is the opposite for men – fewer male actors and many more male roles,” says Melonie Mazibuko who plays Mrs Margaret Hughes, the original first actress.

“The vast majority of acting roles are for men,” explains Melonie, “I saw Henry IV at the Royal Shakespeare Company this week and out of a cast of 23, four of them are women.”

Written by Christopher St. John (born Christabel Marshall, 1871-1960), this short (just 35 minutes), but plucky drama takes the form of an historic pageant in the popular style of the time. Very well connected, the playwright was at one time secretary to Mrs Randolf Churchill and occasionally to her son Winston Churchill before making her mark as a dramatist. A fierce campaigner for women’s rights, St John used this play as a forward thinking argument for women’s suffrage by telling the story of the history of women on the stage.

Sifiso and Melonie Mazibuko together on stage at the Theatro Technis
Sifiso and Melonie Mazibuko together on stage at the Theatro Technis

Beginning in the first act with Margaret Hughes in her debut role as Desdemona in Othello in 1661, the narrative moves into the future, where in the second act, homage is paid to the first actress from the nostalgic perspective of future actresses who followed in her footsteps and found success and fame on stage. This takes the form of a parade of historical characters and documents their acting styles, personas, reputations and popularity – a fascinating window into a time long forgotten.

“It was amazing playing the first actress here in London,” admits Melonie, “It’s really been helpful to be in the country where the play was written and where the actors lived. Having been to the various settings where the suffragette movement took place, the play and my role just came alive for me.”

Melonie Mazibuko’s performance was convincing as the vulnerable and angst-ridden Margaret Hughes, who frets about her acting and bemoans the disservice she will have done for future generations of women on stage.

Sifiso Mazibuko showed his comic prowess, commanding the stage and setting the dramatic tone in the first scene of the play as Sir Chares Sedley (1639-1701), an historical figure of infamous reputation as a bit of a court jester and politician, who was imprisoned for a short time because of a drunken disturbance.

In the intimate setting of the tiny Theatro Technis in Camden, the actors were within touching distance, which allowed the audience rather an impertinent access to the drama. With no separation between actors and audience, the players were under enormous pressure beneath the glare of lights and eyes.

“This is my first time on a London stage,” says Sifiso “It was great to experience the diversity of an international cast – age, race, nationalities. We didn’t have much time to create a bond with the UK actors. We only had one day before performing. That experience was very exciting because we needed to work together in a very short time.”

Sifiso explains what their London tour has meant to him and Melonie: “There is a legacy of British theatre in South African theatre. There was so much support for South African artists in the apartheid times. All of the protest plays came here and many actors performed here; Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona and many others made their mark on the London stage. London was part of that engine that fuelled the discourse about what was going on in South Africa. Ex-pats in that sense, and British artists who came to South Africa, have done a lot to establish that relationship between South African and British theatre, which, when I see it here in London, holds something familiar and beautiful for me.”

Sifiso and Melonie Mazibuko have returned to Columbus, Ohio where they will start their final year at Ohio State in September. After graduation in 2015 they hope to find acting work in the USA and in their words: “Maybe we will find ourselves back in London.”