We met at the Print Room at the Coronet at Notting Hill, where Janet Suzman stars as one of two injured souls searching for redemption in a fragile, post-apartheid South Africa in Lara Foot’s new play, Solomon and Marion.
Suzman was born in Johannesburg to a Jewish family. Her grandfather was a member of the South African parliament, and her aunt, Helen Suzman, was a civil rights and anti-apartheid campaigner.
Vehemently opposing the apartheid regime, Suzman moved to London in 1959. It didn’t take long for the talented and beautiful young Janet to perform leading roles on stage, films and TV.
In 2011 Suzman was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to drama.
At 75, Dame Janet Suzman, is vivacious, sharp and striking.
RJ: You play the role of Marion in Solomon and Marion by Lara Foot at The Print Room Theatre. The play is set in South Africa, your place of birth. Is there a sense of a ‘return to roots’ in the production?
JS: I never left- I have always felt a strong affinity with South Africa. I am not an ex-pat who finishes with a country when they leave. I’ve returned there regularly all these years. So, it’s not a return home, but I feel at home doing the play. The play tells some of the truths about black/white relationships. About overcoming cultural and racial boundaries.
RJ: There is an amazing chemistry- if you can call it that- between you and Khayalethu Anthony, who plays Solomon. Have you performed together before?
JS: No. Very seldom do you act twice with the same person.
RJ: But onstage there is such empathy; it’s such a true relationship. You relate to each other like a mother and son.
JS: That’s good casting!
RJ: Growing up in South Africa, what was your experience of theatre?
JS: None. I have no memory of theatres. Johannesburg was not a cultural haven. I didn’t see any shows; I was at school there, and then at university. I was not influenced by earlier theatre. I was influenced by a curiosity about what acting was about. We did some plays at university- very badly!! When I was 9 or 10 I went to a couple of musicals by touring companies- Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma. But those did not influence me in the least.
I was not interested in theatre when I was 17 or 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At that age, you look around, foraging around through all sorts of ideas, trying to work out what you want. I studied English and French- two completely useless subjects. It was a very political time at university. The vulgarly called ‘Extension of University Education Act, Act 45 of 1959’ was in place. It stopped black students studying there. Universities were not open; they were closed by the regime. I was very left wing, very active. I was on strike most of the time; all of us were boycotting lectures. It wasn’t a peaceful time. I suppose I still managed to graduate somehow, but I have no memory of that!
RJ: What is your opinion of drama schools?
JS: Ideally, a young person who wants to act should live a little, before they go to drama schools. This would be the case- if there were not such funding problems. What do you know when you are 17? Absolutely nothing! Aged 16- even worst! Most drama schools would (secretly) prefer graduates. You have more life experience, more to draw on. But no one can afford to do two degrees today. I was very, very lucky to have already done a degree, and then go to drama school. My previous studies did help. My English degree helped with Shakespeare. Textually, it is nice and complex, which is what makes it interesting. With an English degree, of course this makes you a better actor, because you can understand the language. Unfortunately, there is an opinion that is abroad in the acting community that using your head is not a good idea. I think this is a pitfall! My English degree helped so much with the structure of language, the conceits, and the parts of speech. With every character, you always start with the text.
RJ: But you have performed both fictional and real characters. Does your approach differ between the two?
JS: When you represent a real person, they have been here and have walked the earth. But they are dead now, they cant speak for themselves. Really, in some way, it is a honourable task that has been offered you. I’ve played Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Edwina Mountbatten, the Empress of Russia- all these people need a truth in the script which is written for you, to give them some standing. There is a responsibility there. A fictional character has its own set of truths, but it is different because the playwright is their defendant.
RJ: You have played many different Shakespeare characters throughout your career. Is there one that stands out as being the most rewarding one to play?
JS: The one you are doing at the time! That’s always the most rewarding. I suppose the most considerable character, for a woman, is of course Cleopatra. Shakespeare has written the best gallimaufry for women. But he was, or course, hamstrung by the lack of women acting in his plays. The received wisdom among academics is that boys played the parts. But the more I think about it, the more I explore it, the more rubbish this becomes. Men are wonderful actors, and they love playing female parts- especially British actors! Look at pantomime dames! English actors are very fluid; they can go into women’s parts if they feel the call.
Sometimes this takes the form of a vulgarisation of women- burlesque, pantomime etc. But once, I saw a man act a woman, who had been trained to play women since the age of 7, and he was playing Medea in ’89. It was so feline and dangerous.
RJ: Your Cleopatra hailed by critics as the finest Cleopatra of the last 50 years. How did you approach it?
JS: Through the text! It’s a wonderful part to play.
RJ: You’ve also played Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Being Jewish, how did that affect your performance?
JS: I always think I’m like Jonathan Miller. He used to say, ‘I’m Jew…ish!’ That’s me. I wasn’t brought up in a religious household, apart from respect. We were a close family. But the Jewish consciousness is a powerful thing. I look great delight in trying to sniff out the anti-Semitism in the play. But Shakespeare is too huge, too big-hearted to fall into these ‘isms’ as a writer. Quite the reverse! Shylock has one of the most resonant speeches on what it is like to be humiliated as a Jew (the Has not a Jew eyes? Speech).
Then, in the play, this young stripling comes into a courtroom, determined to save her lover- that is a strong emotion to feel. Aside from having to give up his religion- which people find the most difficult to accept- Portia saves him from being a murderer. It’s difficult to understand why Shylock will persist in shedding Antonio’s blood, he doesn’t shift. Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy is beautiful and saves him. Shakespeare gives both sides of the question, revenge (honouring a contract) and mercy; using his skills he learnt at school – namely rhetoric. There is no doubt Shakespeare does that. Shylock was obsessed with honouring a contract to the point of killing someone. And we must remember Shylock says these things, not Judaism. I don’t think he was thinking clearly.
RJ: Do you have a preference between stage, film and television, and directing?
JS: All three. I do as much as possible to make life interesting. I have been lucky to dip my toe into more than one discipline. I would like to do more directing- I have not had enough experience yet. But in some respect the ‘director’s vision’ has become too much, it is THE concept. But it may be because these plays are so well known now, that people are desperate for a new angle. Yet we don’t do that with music. You don’t go and hear an iconic piece and come out saying ‘I wish they would do something new with it!’ The musical world is more respectful of an original piece of work. Yet I suppose this is because music has a language that is always modern, because there are no words.
RJ: You are currently involved in a Women Centre Stage Project?
JS: I was brought in by my friend Sue Parish, who runs an outfit called the Sphinx Theatre Company, which promotes women’s work in the theatre. I went along and talked about females in the theatre. I think we lament there are not enough roles for women, but personally I think that society has to change first. There is no society on the face of the earth that permits women space to philosophise. You can have a Hamlet because men have space to think. Richard II – ‘let’s sit on the ground and think’ or a King, ‘what is Kingship?’ But no one is interested in ‘the thinking woman’, what goes on inside her head. Until women can be autonomous beings, not controlled by the men in the play, this will not happen. We all need to shift our curiosity.
RJ: Do you think Ibsen has started doing that?
JS: Yes with Hedda Gabler and The Dolls House. They are astonishing plays and so well written. There is not a single word you can cut. But they stand alone. They are unique.
Unfortunately Hedda is often misunderstood by critics- particularly male critics. I don’t think even she fully understands the depths of what is going on in her brain. I wrote an in-depth essay of what it is like to play Hedda for The University of British Columbia. It was about the subtext of the character. There is something noble about her awfulness. I have played her twice within about 6 years, and I changed my mind about her, I reassessed her.
RJ: It is a little like reading a book as a teenager and then as an adult.
JS: Absolutely! The text hasn’t changed but you have changed, your attitude has matured in some way.
RJ: What advice would you give young female actors?
JS: Don’t do it! Acting is very difficult… unless you can forge a career. Otherwise you are doomed to play short-lived television parts. There is no place now in the acting world unless you devote yourself to many years of attrition in a classical theatre company. You need time to learn about yourself. Instead these poor kids are snapped up for television, and like dancers, they have a rather short life. By 35, the camera doesn’t like wrinkles any more. This isn’t the same for men- but women… it is unfortunate. Feminism has ground to a halt- young women are only interested in what they look like and what they wear. That’s boring. Although it is perhaps restarting- there are some authoritative female personalities.
RJ: What is your next project?
JS: I don’t know. I think I might be directing The Marriage of Figaro for the Royal College of Music.
RJ: Do you find directing more creative?
JS: Yes in some way- you are in charge of the whole thing. The show is yours to mould, and it is very thrilling.