Why do we go to the theatre? Why isn’t South African master Athol Fugard seen more often here? How do you get an actor who can do a convincing Afrikaaner accent? We caught up with multi-award-winning actor turned director Janet Suzman about A Lesson From Aloes, revived for the first time in London next week at the Finborough Theatre. Time to get booking!
A Lesson From Aloes has not been seen in London in nearly 40 years since its UK premiere at the National Theatre in 1980. This new staging marks the 25th anniversary year of the first free and democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
South Africa in the 1960s. Apartheid is at its height. Mandela’s ANC has just been banned as a terrorist organisation. Informers are everywhere. In the small backyard of a house in a shabby Port Elizabeth suburb, pots of aloe – the desert plant that can thrive in the most barren soil – bear silent witness to a world where trust has been betrayed and destroyed.
Left-leaning Afrikaner Piet and his wife, Gladys, hold a party for their mixed-race friend Steve who has just been released from prison. But when mistrust creeps into your own backyard, the closest of ties are undone. Who has betrayed this group of friends?
In Janet Suzman‘s production, Dawid Minnaar plays Piet alongside David Rubin as Steve and Janine Ulfane as Gladys, with lighting by the legendary South African lighting designer, producer and co-founder of The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Mannie Manim.
Talking to… Janet Suzman
Janet Suzman’s long stage, film and TV career as an actor started with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-day Wars of the Roses followed by myriad leading roles for the RSC. She has won the Evening Standard Award twice for roles in plays by Athol Fugard and Anton Chekhov and was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Nicholas and Alexandra. Her films include Joe Egg, The Clayhanger Trilogy, Mountbatten – Last Viceroy of India, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Singing Detective, A Dry White Season, The Black Windmill and E La Nave Va. As a director, Suzman’s credits include Othello (Market Theatre, Johannesburg), Hamlet (Baxter Theatre, Cape Town & RSC) and Antony and Cleopatra, starring Kim Cattrall (Liverpool Playhouse & Chichester Festival Theatre).
How important would you say Athol Fugard is to South African culture?
Athol is top dog in the history of South African drama. In this country, Mike Leigh might perhaps have similar compassion for ordinary people and for the poor, and use improvisation to explore them. But his British social derelicts are a long way from the very dire poverty and the desperately lonely stoicism of South Africa’s dispossessed. He’s a company writer, drafting work for people he knew and respected. Also, Fugard is interested in women, a rare beast. His parts for women are particularly fine.
How much has Fugard influenced you as an actor, writer & director?
I first fell in love with an Athol character when I read Hello and Goodbye and asked a young Ben Kingsley to join me, and we performed at the King’s Head in Islington. Lucky for us both; it was a big success. Practically in the laps of a packed audience round the teeny tiny stage sitting askew, it generated a sad intensity. Someone fainted once and had to be carried inert across the stage to reach the doors. We helped heft her. Then started again: “Now where were we…?”
I have also performed in Boesman and Lena, arguably Fugard’s greatest play in my view. Rather like King Lear, the characters reach the deepest depths of misery before re-igniting a life-force to get them through the next day. I directed Master Harold and the Boys at LAMDA some years ago, and what a marvellous play that is! A schoolboy spits at a black man he adores and lives with the disgust and the guilt.
Where does A Lesson from Aloes fall in his canon?
What his best commentator calls his ‘Interior plays’. Middle period. He seemed to be writing about his wife and her mental fragility; Fugard’s own life is tangentially reflected somewhere in his plays, as all good writers lives must be.
Why do you think it hasn’t been staged in London in nearly 40 years?
He isn’t fashionable or tricksy, he doesn’t rely on dazzling design, he doesn’t waft across the Channel flying the word ‘concept’ on his flag. He writes true and painfully. But since Mandela’s dazzle blinded us all to the dark centre, while showing us the sunny uplands of a democratic nirvana, South Africa has fallen off the radar and the world has moved on to flag-wave about other wretched countries. So the interior struggles of those whom apartheid wrenched asunder have been rendered peripheral. Sad to say, because the wounds are still painful and the country still suffers.
What made you want to direct the play?
Basically, I was asked to do so and I leapt at it.
Tell us a little about the cast you’ve assembled.
We have imported that rare beast – a real Afrikaner to play the part of a real Afrikaner. How lucky is that? I have never yet found an English actor who can manage that particular accent. He’s a terrific actor name of Dawid Minnaar. A generalised accent belonging to everywhere and nowhere is achievable by good homegrown actors, and we have a perfectly splendid one in David Rubin, who with coaching from me and the Afrikaner, has managed a damned good Cape Coloured accent; I am so proud of him. The wife in the play, Janine Ulfane, was born in South Africa and the sound has never left her inner-ear even though she left the place at three years old, so her accent is spot on. These three make a remarkable trio; the play is taught and tight and full of tensions, as the characters nose about, desperate to discover who is worth their trust.
Why should audiences see A Lesson from Aloes?
Athol Fugard is a writer to dream of. His dialogue is packed tight with what you may call sub-text. It is weighted with feeling. Sometimes, admittedly, his sentences are too strung out for modern tastes, but that is remediable. Every word deserves consideration and attention. There is no pretension in this writer, no false notes, nothing fashionable or witty. Those virtues, far from being dull, are rendered almost unbearably moving by being so honestly come by.
This particular play is as far as anything could possibly be from ‘fake news’; a search for where lies lurk must surely be a subject that could refresh our jaded sense of what is important: trust. None of that abounds in this world, and how are we to navigate our way in such a deceitful place? A dire fate for us all.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Why do we go to the theatre? To see how others find their way in the maelstrom of life; to find instruction in another’s misery; to seek out a moral compass through fictional lives, which reflect real ones with a greater truth than the street can offer, because a story has a shape and life has none.
A Lesson from Aloes runs from 27 February to 23 March 2019 at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are priced £14-£18. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!