Dream of the Dog: Janet Suzman talks humanity and history

Ariyon BakareJanet and Suzman by Clare ParkFrom the archives. First published on Spoonfed, 23rd April 2010. In light of Janet Suzman’s recent comments about theatre being a “white invention”, I’m re-publishing this interview from 4 years ago. It’s not the best interview, I use phrases like “There are more than a few curiosities about such a play,” but forgive me, I was just starting out.

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Within a month of the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche, the Afrikaner white supremacist founder of the AWB, Dream of the Dog by South African writer Craig Higginson, will begin its run at London’s Finborough Theatre.

I popped into rehearsals at Jerwood Space to talk to theatre stalwart Janet Suzman, known for her work with the RSC and recent directorial roles in her native South Africa. She explained the historical and humanitarian relevance of Dream of the Dog.

“I haven’t done a play at all similar to this. This is a new play, it’s very, very, very new,” she states, clearly enthralled by the prospect of performing something she’s been working on since its embryonic stages.

Dream of the Dog explores conflicting memories of the same terrible event that took place on a farm fourteen years previously. Farm owners Patricia and Richard Wiley are now elderly and preparing to leave the land they’ve sold to developers when they are paid an unexpected visit by one of their former workers.

“That’s how history is made – two completely different memories of the same event,” Janet explains. Her aunt Helen Suzman was a long-term activist against the apartheid regime. She discusses the part of the liberal family and friends surrounding her at a time of polemic activity: “My family political DNA baulked against having any relationship with the Eugene Terre’Blanches of this world. People don’t know about the undemonstrative side of racism; it’s there simmering beneath the surface.”

On what compelled her to get involved with this play she said, “it goes back a long way with me. The writer is a young man who is a dramaturg of Market Theatre in Johannesburg which was founded in 1970s Apartheid South Africa. It was the one and only place through whose doors you could walk where there was freedom inside. It was a theatre. And theatre can say all kinds of things that cannot be said in the street. Protest theatre, agitprop theatre, theatre that cocked a snook at the regime came out of the Market Theatre, like The Island [by Athol Fugard]. I did the opening play there so I have a connection to it. I’m a rather political animal. You can’t grow up in South Africa without politics being drip fed into your venous system.”

It’s no surprise to theatregoers that the play was picked up in its draft stages by the folks at Finborough Theatre – they’re known for showcasing the best of new writing talents emerging from all corners of the globe. But it did come as a pleasant surprise to Suzman and Higginson: “I’d been working on the play with the author for quite some time and then one of these accidents happened which always makes you think, makes you focus,” she explains. “The Finborough Theatre said ‘hey, we’ve got a slot in April/May’. Well damn me if the author and I didn’t say, ‘is it ready enough to do?’”

I wondered if she considered the timing also a happy accident? “The fact that Eugene Terre’Blanche has died, I have to say hand on heart I am not sorry,” Suzman answers in frank but reflective terms. “He represents something interesting in South Africa’s history. He was an out and out fascist bastard racist, but they too belong to the human race and we have to understand how they can cause such a stir in the world when they shouldn’t even be listened to. But it’s always the political fringe that stirs up the dust.”

Dream of the Dog taps at the notion of reconciling the past in order to build a future. There are more than a few curiosities about such a play, and though neither Suzman nor Higginson set out to create a piece for a specific audience, they clearly want to display certain aspects of humanity. Janet elaborates: “I hope what an audience will see is people tearing at themselves before their very eyes in real time. There are of course memories and flashbacks as there always are when you have relationships between individuals who have shared a life. The eternal sand in the oyster of our world is whether people of different colours can live together properly like decent human beings, and that’s the struggle in this play.”

What lies at the heart of this play is, as Janet puts it, “the sad thunder roll that underneath South Africa’s new found freedom shows the rainbow nation is still a myth”.

Photo: Ariyon Bakare and Janet Suzman, image by Clare Park

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