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Janice Honeyman: the doyenne of theatre in South Africa

Every play that Janice Honeyman directs is a complete success, and her latest, Fool for Love, is no exception. With this production, she returned to her theatrical roots: the Market Theatre. Creative Feel caught up with her to get an update on her busy creative schedule.

Janice Honeyman
Janice Honeyman

We find Janice Honeyman in a rehearsal room upstairs at the Market Theatre Foundation building. It’s Friday, lunchtime, and the actors are still getting changed and ready for the weekend. They leave with a hug, a smile and a real sense of camaraderie. ‘For me, it’s an absolutely crucial part of the rehearsal process – that they relate, they create a team and that they are happy,’ comments Honeyman. ‘Theatre is like an infection. If you pass on a bad germ, the last place that it stops at is the audience. But if you are passing on a good germ, it is positive and comes out of teamwork.’ The team that she refers to is the cast of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. Zane Meas makes a comeback to the stage, playing the Old Man alongside award-winning actress Kate Liquorish’s May. Langley Kirkwood returns to the Market Theatre after 20 years as Eddie, and Paka Zwedala completes this incredibly talented cast as Martin, May’s suitor.
     For Honeyman, it is a return to a place where she celebrated some of her most memorable successes. With Zane Meas, she explored Chris van Wyk’s wonderful story of childhood innocence, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. When she directed John Kani’s Nothing But The Truth, people travelled all the way from the Eastern Cape to come to the Market Theatre. They stood outside crying, remembering their own brothers. This story, which runs deep into the veins of apartheid, touched them deeply. ‘We took the play to New Brighton, right into the township that it was written in, and it was astounding,’ says Honeyman. ‘Theatre is meaningful for people when it reflects their own lives.
     ‘I did Shirley, Goodness and Mercy in Cape Town and here in Riverlea, which was a coloured township in Joburg, and the people from there did the same thing. They used to queue around the block – it was completely full. People came and saw it three, four or five times because they could absolutely relate to it. It was about them. It’s great when one can find moments like that.
     ‘We put on Driving Miss Daisy, a play that crossed the colour bar, in 1989 when it was still not allowed. Staging a play about a black man (John Kani) who drives a white woman (Annabel Linder) around… there’s such a different angle that we have to approach theatre from in this country, and there always was. I think living in South Africa is a bit like living on quicksand – you never know what’s going to be happening tomorrow.
     ‘The Market Theatre was always way ahead of its time and was integrated – and that’s why we started it. If you look at the Market Theatre today, it is a theatre for everyone and that is exactly what we wanted to achieve. I just wish white people weren’t too frightened to come to it. It’s such a reflection of how people still think.’

Janice Honeyman
Kate Liquorish, Langley Kirkwood and Zane Meas in Fool for Love PHOTO Brett Rubin

     And, of course, talking about the early years we also touch on Honeyman’s artistic relationship and long-standing friendship with Mannie Manim. They are working together again on Fool for Love where he will be doing the lighting. She says, ‘That’s one of the longest relationships I have in theatre, it started even before the Market. He was still working with PACT (The Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) at the time, and I was a student. We went to the very first Grahamstown Festival (it wasn’t even called the National Arts Festival yet) and I heard Nadine Gordimer speaking, Alan Paton did a reading and one night was the world premiere of Boesman and Lena.
     ‘Mannie took us to an amazing party. Don Mattera, Jack Cope, Athol Fugard, Alan Paton, Andre Brink were all there and we drank red wine (which was quite daring). Barney Simon was there too, I met him as well. It was such a great start, that is when Mannie and my friendship began.’
     Two years later, Honeyman finished university and Manim employed her at PACT. ‘He was a manager at PACT at that time and Carel Trichardt was the artistic director… There were incidents at PACT that no one was happy about. It was a segregated theatre and it continued to be segregated theatre and there were never mixed casts. I remember playing the coloured character Adriana, which I loved playing, in Andre Brink’s Kinkels innie Kabel. Later, when they wanted to do it again, I suggested they offer it to a wonderful actress in Eersterust. She was coloured and a fantastic actress, why should I, as a white actress, do it again? I was trying to make a political point. And they said, “oh, well thank you, then you needn’t be in the play” and they cast someone else who was white. We just wanted to be in a place where every South African had the right to see good theatre. I loved my time here, at the Market Theatre, I just loved it.’

Janice Honeyman
Kate Liquorish, Langley Kirkwood and Zane Meas in Fool for Love PHOTO Brett Rubin

     Honeyman is, of course, renowned for having worked, either as an actress or as a director, on almost all of Athol Fugard’s plays. She directed Hello and Goodbye at the Market Theatre, the Civic Theatre and even in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company after Fugard himself had recommended her. ‘It was so great that I could do that. It was during the time of the cultural boycott but, because of my association with the Market Theatre, I was able to get a permit to break the cultural boycott.
     ‘I have a long history with Fugard and I love putting on his work. It’s funny, doing this play, Fool for Love, Sam Shepard is like the American Fugard.’
     Of course, the question is, ‘Why this play now?’ Honeyman explains: ‘James Ngcobo chose it, but I love it and I think it’s great. I think because of the cultural boycott all those years ago, and because theatre became very workshopped and there was a lot of protest theatre, the public missed out on these plays – we couldn’t do them. In fact, when I was at the Market, I was sort of responsible for doing most of the overseas plays that we could get through the cultural boycott.
     ‘Shepard gives us a masculinised landscape but, in this play, I think he wrote, for the first time, a very detailed part for a woman. Previously, he wrote many male-male relationships, father-son, brothers, and so on. But in this play, there is a very damaged and very difficult relationship. He paints a really detailed picture of the woman as well as of the man. That, for me, makes it very interesting because of my particular interest in feminism – that seems like such an old-fashioned word – in women, and the psychological problems that the woman goes through. It’s a lovely play. So, when James said Fool for Love, I already loved the play. I had never seen the film, I had never seen a production of it, but had read it many years ago.
     ‘It is definitely relevant to family situations today. It’s about relationships and it’s a human play. I think that, no matter what, there is always room for those plays – for personal recognition and identification with a subject in a play for an audience. They must be able to identify, and they must be able to say: “oh my god, I have said that myself” or “I have seen that myself”.
     ‘It’s a play about imprisonment in a way and being trapped in a relationship. It’s a small set, a grungy motel room, and it’s in the intimate Mannie Manim theatre at the Market.’

(We also talked to Janice Honeyman about her yearly pantomime and she is busy at the moment with her thirty-first panto, Snow White. So watch this space in Creative Feel).