A Portrait of the Actress

By Ella Johnson


The first apartheid-era production of Othello with a Black man in its titular role was performed in South Africa in 1987. Xhosa actor John Kani had been cast into the part by novice director and close friend Janet Suzman, who broke the country’s colour- bar in a sensational and now-authoritative rendering of the play. Shakespeare’s ‘perfect metaphor’ for contemporary South African politics had been left untapped prior to Suzman. Yet for her, it was blindingly obvious: ‘Othello says absolutely everything about the humiliation of a Black man by a white thug’. Black and white spectators alike—thrust together under the single, equalising roof of the Market Theatre, Downtown Johannesburg— were forced to confront their uncomfortable reality afresh, and the production was received with hostility and thrill by equal measure. When I spoke with Dame Janet Suzman in mid-2020, the world was mere days from experiencing the shockwaves of George Floyd’s murder. It is with hindsight, then, that I realise just how timely our conversation was. As police brutalities and Black Lives Matter protests rumble on, we are aware now more than ever of the ongoing and urgent necessity of discussions of diversity and inclusion—a discussion, indeed, that was jumpstarted by Suzman’s protest theatre over 30 years ago.


It is noon when I telephone. Suzman has repaired to her cottage in the country. ‘I’ve just planted 40 trees. Isn’t that nice? I am so thrilled with them,’ she purrs down the line. It is apparently a light morning’s work for the actress, who, in her ninth decade of existence, shows no sign of slowing down. We had originally planned to meet at her favourite tapas place in Belsize Park, but Unprecedented Times had since taken hold. I had felt sceptical about achieving anywhere near the same kind of intimacy over the phone with Suzman as I might have done over a shared plate of patatas fritas, but now find myself grateful for the buffer. Suzman’s voice—guttural, flirtatious— is one that easily commands a room, and she asserts herself as fully as if she were sat before me.


Belonging to the same generation that produced Ian McKellen, Glenda Jackson, and Judi Dench, Suzman’s acting career began in 1951 when she ventured to England from her native South Africa. She is rather modest about how things panned out from there: having been recruited into the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) within six months of finishing up at LAMDA, Suzman played nearly all of Shakespeare’s great heroines (Lady Macbeth, Rosaline, Lavinia, Portia, Kate, Cleopatra) within the first decade of her career. She has since dipped her toes into film and directing too. Suzman concedes that she got ‘an awful lot under [her] belt’ during her first stint at the RSC in the 1960s, but is otherwise rather blasé about the success of her early years. She rattles off the names of her some of her legendary co-workers—Peter Hall, John Barton, David Warner, Peggy Ashcroft, Dadie Rylands—with an expectant, ‘do you remember?’ I can picture her as we speak, giving a dismissive wave of the hand as she calls me ‘darling’ from the comfort of an armchair. I don’t think to tell her that I wasn’t actually alive then, but I don’t need reminding: her career has been colossal.


Acting and activism have long gone hand in hand for Suzman. She grew up in a white liberal family in apartheid South Africa, and while it was an idyllic childhood, she was aware of racial tensions from an early age. She wistfully recalls holidaying in Kwazu-Natal during the winter: ‘it was a magical time: spiritually, aesthetically, poetically, I fell in love with that part of South Africa. Rolling green hills, deep clefts of magic streams down below in the glens, and wonderful vistas...’ But she is quick to pull herself from reverie: ‘injustice was the norm, you see. You had to dig it out. It was a topsy-turvy world. Just completely mad’. It was through a childhood companion that Suzman first became conscious of a deep- rooted disparity. Ambrose was the young farmhand after whom she used to trot around and ‘annoy the hell out of’ while on holiday: ‘I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t learning to read,’ she recalls. ‘I was only six, but I began to understand very dimly that something wasn’t right’. That nascent comprehension, which was to become full-blown, placard- wielding activism by adulthood, made for much discomfort while growing up. ‘There was a sort of voluntary blindness going on. But what the hell do you do about it when it’s law?’


The young Suzman found solace in her aunt— anti-apartheid activist and liberal politician, Helen Suzman. Janet adulates her for being a ‘great steamroll’ within both family and government: ‘she was bringing it out into the open. She was there to let the world know what was going on. When Parliament was sitting, she’d be a thousand miles away in Cape Town, then she’d come roaring back, and over a good whiskey would let forth’. No doubt this is where Suzman gets her moxie from: it is, indeed, little wonder that she was cast into so many of Shakespeare’s great female roles so early on in her career; still less that she was the one to depose Elizabeth Taylor as the Cleopatra of the public’s imagination. She played the role opposite Richard Johnson in Jon Scoffield’s television production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1974, and it was an embodiment of majestic proportions. Dripping with jewels in an unmistakably ’70s-style revival of ancient Egypt, Suzman here ranges across all aspects of Cleopatra’s character—seductress, commander, politician, matriarch—with what can only be described as a kind of graceful ferocity. What was it like having to fill the shoes of Elizabeth Taylor? ‘Oh, easy,’ Suzman retorts: ‘I’m very clear in my thinking that Hollywood concentrated on Cleopatra’s cleavage. What I know to be in the play is certainly not that. She was a very sophisticated political woman’. Suzman admits that ‘it’s a very mighty part to encompass. It’s sort of un-doable. It’s like Hamlet: you can do what you possibly can, but there is always something you didn’t reach’. (She describes Cleopatra now as ‘a very human animal’: her enunciation, so redolent of Shakespeare and the stage, makes me think that she never quite managed to get out of character.)


Suzman’s progressivism, however manifest in her renditions of women onstage, found fullest expression in directing. That first foray of hers with Othello in the 1980s was a real watershed moment, both personally and politically: ‘I was always politically pained. There was always an upset in one’s mind about the state of South Africa. It was a painful country—still is’. She calls the Market Theatre, where it was performed, her ‘light in the darkness’. ‘It was this absolutely non-racial theatre. We called it a grey area, because it was neither black nor white. It was free. It was absolutely wonderful’. The theatre was founded in the mid 1970s, and it was there that Suzman found ‘some of the best theatre people I’ve ever worked with’. (Her energy audibly changes at this point of the conversation, and she inadvertently lets out a squeal of excitement down the phone.) To Suzman’s mind, the 1970s were the time when South Africa ‘was its best at political plays’, and she praises the Market Theatre for its relentless employment of comedy and satire in the face oppression. It was a ‘rocky ride’, however: strict censorship laws meant having to ‘get magistrates in at midnight’ to take judgment on a play and ‘see whether some accusation could be levelled at it’. Othello was the first classic the theatre had put on: ‘they [the actors] were so nervous. They thought nobody would come because nobody had read Shakespeare. But I told them we must, because it was their story’. She is in no doubt that it was worth it: ‘we had a six-week run! We could have done it for three months’.


Suzman goes on now, unprompted, to tell another anecdote about Othello. Waxing nostalgic about the time that ‘Glenda [Jackson] and I ran across one afternoon to a matinee in Birmingham,’ she recalls how the second act ‘just took off like a helicopter’. (She’s referring, of course, to that famous 1964 production with Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Laurence Olivier as Othello.) ‘Othello is a vexed part, you know. People were a bit nervous about blacking up. Except for Laurence Olivier: he didn’t hesitate to black up.’ It strikes me as odd that she is able to reconcile this early experience of blackface (or, indeed, her own anachronistic portrayal of an ancient Egyptian Cleopatra) so easily with her activism later in life. She admits that ‘[blackface] was beginning to be looked at askance by actors [in the 1960s]’, and that ‘after Kani did it, it was not possible’. It nonetheless reveals, I think, something of a contradiction in Suzman’s character. I am reminded now of a comment made by the actress in 2014—in response to Meera Syal’s call on the theatre industry to cater more to Asian audiences— that ‘theatre is a white invention’. Though much decontextualised by the media, it says something of the uncomfortable blindspot inherent in a classicalist belief that sees Shakespeare as the originator of drama.


Beyond the stage, Suzman found success in film, appearing in the likes of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Clayhanger, and opposite Marlon Brando in A Dry White Season. Her IMDb vastly underplays her achievements in that vein, however: ‘this alert and classy Britisher seemed poised for Hollywood stardom in the early 1970s. Although it wasn’t meant to be [...]’. It is a damning indictment of an actress with quite the string of accolades—not least an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress for her role in Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971. Yet Suzman does admit that her career in film might have gone further, had life not got in the way: ‘I did have to interrupt my career in order to have a child, and I think this is always a woman’s problem’. ‘It was hard,’ she says: ‘to have a kid and look after your career are two incompatibles’. Motherhood was nonetheless an easy decision for Suzman, and while she wishes she ‘did more of everything’, she juggled it all remarkably well. In fact, she still does: just three years ago, at 78, Suzman starred in a three-week run of a one-woman play, Rose, directed by Richard Beecham, to great critical acclaim. How does she feel about her career coming to a close? ‘I don’t think I care too much. I am completely aware of how utterly meaningless fame is. Look, I’ve been talking to you about all sorts of wonderful people and you haven’t heard of them.’ (I cringe audibly down the phone.) She quickly continues: ‘And it doesn’t matter! That’s how the world is, sweetheart. It doesn’t matter, you see.’


Suzman appeared on a Desert Island Disc interview with Roy Plomley in 1978, in which she requested, alongside the requisite Bible and Complete Works of Shakespeare, ‘an enormous basket of cosmetics: suntan oil, bug repellent, shampoo, and face cream’. It had made me giggle when I heard it. How typical, I had thought. But I realise now that those frivolities are just one part of a ‘very human animal’. Suzman is, like her Shakespearean counterpart, a woman of contradiction and complexity. While, indeed, she is a force to be reckoned with, her progressivism is of a distinctly generational kind, and her rhetoric veers every so often into a realm that might now be considered problematic. That notwithstanding, Suzman gives the impression now of one who cares profoundly about the world and very little about her position within it. (Her Othello, indeed, pays testament enough to that.) ‘We’ve screwed up your world’, she confesses, ‘and that’s the thing that upsets me most. It’s important to me, how we leave the world.’ When I ask about posterity, she says ‘I hope my legacy is trees’. We chuckle together at the absurdity of the suggestion, but I can tell she is serious. ‘In 40 years’ time, my son, who will be more or less my age by then, will stand in front of them and think “my mum planted these”. And they’ll be great big oaks, and hornbeams, and beautiful trees. Or so I hope. That’s if the world isn’t frazzling into a cinder by then.’ Undercutting herself with acerbity in the last breath, the statement is characteristic of the actress—a sceptic at heart, even if she lets herself wander every so often into sentimentality. Suzman’s parting advice? ‘Just do and give more than you think you can. It all comes back to you.’ She pauses for a moment, before adding: ‘and if you’ve got a nursery near you, go and get a little grow bag. Plant some tomatoes. You’ll be able to eat them in a few months’ time’. A world away from the intimidating starlet with whom I began my conversation, I feel now as though I am talking to a wise, older relative. We giggle, though I am grateful for the wisdom. Tomatoes seem as a good place to start as any.


ELLA JOHNSON reads English at St Peter’s College. Her great-great-great-great-great grandfather wrote ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’.


Art by Anna Covell


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