Women and Shakespeare

S1:E6: Janet Suzman on Hamlet, Othello, Antony & Cleopatra

September 17, 2020 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 1 Episode 6
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E6: Janet Suzman on Hamlet, Othello, Antony & Cleopatra
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Janet Suzman's productions of Hamlet, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra in South Africa and England. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Dame Janet Suzman
Producer: Ivanna Vargas
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Varsha:

Hello, and welcome to Women and Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani. And I want to draw your attention to Professor Elizabeth Schafer's phenomenal book, MsDirecting Shakespeare. She begins her book with Rosalind in As You Like It, who directs the final masque and arguably much of the play that she's in. And Schafer elects her as an "appropriate figurehead" for women directors. Of course, Schafer points out that Rosalind was a "fantasy in Shakespeare's playhouse where women didn't act, let alone direct. And it took a long time before Rosalind's directorial trailblazing became a real possibility for most women".

Varsha:

This episode's guest is just such a trailblazer. South African and British, actor, writer, director, Dame Janet Suzman, who insisted we call her Janet, met Rosalind at school and went on to direct high-profile productions of plays, Othello, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, which loom large in people's cultural consciousness. She's an honorary associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Life Fellow of the British Shakespeare Association, and, of course, has acted in numerous Shakespeare's plays and has left her mark on these roles. But it was her directing that we spoke to her about.

Varsha:

I also want to put this on record, because it was way too exciting. She not only invited me and my students to her house to record this episode, but she also made us tea herself. So as you're listening to this episode, please imagine us very privileged and pampered in her lovely home sipping tea as we talk to her.

Varsha:

Janet, you're so welcome to Women and Shakespeare podcast. I'm going to turn my intellectual and academic side of the brain on, in a moment, but I have to confess, I'm finding it really hard not to just be fan girling all the time.

Janet:

Thank you so much, but put the fan girl at the door.

Varsha:

I have checked her out.

Janet:

Okay. Check her out.

Varsha:

So I'm wondering, when was your first encounter with Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter?

Janet:

It has to be school. I was at a school in Johannesburg in South Africa, and it so happened that there were two fabulous English teachers. One of them was called [Desiree Cumberledge 00:02:45]. Can you imagine a better name...

Varsha:

No.

Janet:

... in the whole world for an English teacher? [Desiree Cumberledge 00:02:51], known as Dizzy. And the second one was called Angela. I think she was about six foot tall. And I think she fancied herself as Rosalind, because I remember we went through As You Like It when I was about maybe 14. And I just thought, "Yes. Oh, this girl in the forest, speaking all that stuff." I couldn't believe it. So I think that's where it began

Varsha:

Talking about women characters in Shakespeare, and you wrote this wonderful book, Not Hamlet... Great title. And you write extensively about Gertrude and Ophelia, which I really appreciate, because these characters, Ophelia and Gertrude, often get shortchanged, because of this emphasis on Hamlet.

Janet:

It's not that so much as men directors, I think. Men just aren't very interested in the girls. They just aren't. And so, I think that's why they get left behind. But I got this overwhelming sense when I directed it. I directed it in Cape Town with a young cast, except for the great John Kani who played Claudius. That was a lucky thing for me, because he's a man with great presence. I got this overwhelming feeling of Elsinore and empty passageways and stone turrets and the sea below... and where do you go to put your grief? This might sound, I hope not sentimental, but I got an overwhelming feeling that the two of them were lonely, lost souls-

Varsha:

Absolutely.

Janet:

... with people taking no notice of them whatsoever.

Varsha:

But I think we need to see that to really get a sense of the [crosstalk 00:04:30].

Janet:

Well, I had one thing I interpolated into my production, which is I opened after the interval with Gertrude smoking by herself at night, lonely, introspective and thoughtful and lost. And it was just a picture. There were no words. I don't think there was even music. It was just quite sad. Just had the smoke coming up through the lights. And I thought I've got to find a way of showing Gertrude alone without her nemesis, Claudius, always there. And after the heartbreak of what she now understands she has done, she cannot go near that man again. She's got to separate herself from him. Otherwise, she's not a human being, and I think she is. And so, I did find a moment..

Janet:

There was another production I saw with Geraldine McCune playing Gertrude. And there, too, was an amazing moment. Now I think of it. When she was slopping around in terrible slippers, and I just heard her slippers slapping on the floor, like she was insomniac and walking up and down corridors and passages, not knowing where to go or what to do.

Varsha:

And that makes absolute sense.

Janet:

It does, doesn't it?

Varsha:

Yes. At least in the way I see Gertrude.

Janet:

Well, you can see these things in the plays. They're so...

Varsha:

And I think you can see something in performance that you can't perhaps on the page. And I think that might be one of the-

Janet:

Well, you've hit it.

Varsha:

.... problems.

Janet:

I think one of the problems with Shakespeare is reading it. Reading it is hell. You know, the guy was an actor, and he didn't expect people to sit down at neat little wooden desks and read like grown ups. No.

Varsha:

No. Because all the, say, silences and loneliness of Gertrude, how do you read that on the page? But once you see that... In a recent Indian production, Haider, the camera loves her face, so we pause on her face, and we can see the entire introspection that is going on.

Janet:

Right, right, right. That's lovely. Well, film can do that. It makes me think of Peter Brook's Lear. I can't think of a better face than Paul Scofield's, because he's got landscapes inside him. Some actors have inner landscapes and some don't. And Paul is a landscape artist. And so, Peter Brook dwelling in close up on Lear, but you need the face. And you just said it, "That camera loved her face." It seemed to do the expressing that you needed.

Varsha:

And again, she is a landscape artist as well.

Janet:

So, but you can't do that on the stage. There are no closeups on the stage, only silences or moments of aloneness or some way of letting the audience in on the inner life of the character.

Varsha:

Speaking of which, there's a very poignant moment between Gertrude and Ophelia. Shakespeare writes a connection, because Gertrude reports the offstage drowning of Ophelia. And you write about it in your book, and you pose a question for Gertrude, "So why didn't she save Ophelia, instead of observing and then reporting?" And your answer is that she didn't save Ophelia, because of envy. Now for our listeners who haven't read the book, how did you arrive at this very interesting interpretation?

Janet:

Because I wonder why there was no sentence that was given to her by the author to say, "I didn't want her to drown." She just watches in a quiet, almost forensic way. She talks about the plants that grow along the edge of the river. She talks about the length of the song. She talks about the time the water began to fill her clothes and pull her down into the depths. It's all so calmly and forensically observed. And it made me think, "Perhaps Gertrude is thinking to herself, 'Well, that might be a good way to go.'" And I think something in her knew that Ophelia was ending an intolerable life, and Gertrude's life had become intolerable. She didn't know how to deal with it. And I think so, for shorthand, they put the word "envy." Because there's something there that makes me think in watching the girl drown, she's thinking, "Maybe I could do that, too, or maybe there's another way of getting rid of yourself."

Varsha:

Mm-hmm. And with a play with such meditations on suicide.

Janet:

Listen. It's a black diamond. You just hold it. It's like obsidian. You hold it up, and every facet of it is a discussion about death, not depressing death, a fascinating array of thoughts about death.

Varsha:

And our ethics and morality and touchiness around death as well.

Janet:

You know, I have to tell you a story. I think it's only in South of Africa that you'd get one of your actors shot dead during rehearsals. It's a violent place. And that indeed happened. My Rosencrantz was shot one night on the Easter weekend in 2006. And I tell you, we were all completely heartbroken, as you can imagine, and shocked and traumatized.

Janet:

But if we'd been doing a lesser play, we wouldn't have been able to survive it. But we were doing Hamlet, and it was like those death skeins and leitmotifs and tunes in Hamlet just rose up and embraced the whole thing. Somehow all the actors could say what they had to say in their parts, and the play absorbed it.

Janet:

And so we got through it, and we took it to Stratford where it was opening a World Theatre Season in 2006. But there's those kids and the two grownups, who were in the play, survived the death of one of their number, a horrible death of one of their number. And I put it down to Hamlet. Hamlet is an expansive creature, the play.

Varsha:

What was your conception of Hamlet in that production. How did you imagine your Hamlet?

Janet:

Well, you don't have a conception of Hamlet. It's the boy who's playing it. That's the Hamlet. Otherwise, why cast him? And I had a... He was South African, but he was Sri Lankan by birth.

Varsha:

Mm-hmm. Wow.

Janet:

Beautiful young man. Very musical and into martial arts. He had all sorts of expertises. And he was very physical, and I loved that. He wasn't very cerebral. But he writes poetry, too. So a lot of him could be knit into the fabric of the Hamlet that we came up with. Very young, athletic, thoughtful. These are things that suit Hamlet perfectly.

Varsha:

I agree.

Janet:

So Hamlet is always the person who's playing it.

Varsha:

It's fascinating that you bring up all of these, because I've seen Hamlets that fall into one camp or another.

Janet:

Very rich. Richer than that. Because he's so witty and he's funny. And he loves his mother. You know how men are tied to their mothers. It's almost a cliche that in any war movie, when a young soldier dies, he says, "Tell my mom, 'I love her.'" And Gertrude's behavior to Hamlet is so understandably nauseating to him, now that he knows what he knows. And there's a terrible tenderness and closeness. That's why that scene is so vicious. That's why he goes to the extreme of imagery to a sexual enjoyment of Claudius. He just cannot stand it. It makes him throw up. But he throws up words.

Varsha:

Yes, yes. He does. Talking about another play that you directed... So let's go back to 1987, when you directed Othello at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and you cast John Kani, and he's a black South African actor, of course, to play Othello. Now the infamous Immorality Act

Janet:

[crosstalk 00:00:12:40]. That had gone by then.

Varsha:

That had gone, but only a couple of years ago, it had gone. So I'm imagining that the social acceptance was still not there.

Janet:

Listen. South Africa was sick. It still is. Most societies are a bit sick about two things, sex and race. We spend all our lives trying to expurgate those two monsters. So yes, you're right. The residues were there, but Shakespeare wrote about a wheeling stranger of here and everywhere.

Janet:

I do think he wrote about a black man and, even more interestingly, all the Othellos that I knew about, thus far, when I did it way back then, had always been American actors and English is their mother tongue. And for the first time, I had a Othello who found it difficult to express himself and therefore, was much more moving, I felt that him finding ways of expressing what he felt in a language foreign to him.

Janet:

And I thought it added a dimension to Othello that I hadn't seen before, because, as I understood it, historically, Venice did hire foreign generals. And it made Desdemona falling in love with something so un-Venetian and something she'd never met before so exciting. And the horror of the grandees, especially her father who's racism.. in South Africa, we would call him an "armchair liberal." "Yes, of course come for dinner, but don't you dare marry my daughter."

Varsha:

Marry my daughter.

Janet:

Yes, exactly. It revealed the hypocrisy thus far and no further. And I liked that, too. So I think it peeled layers off quite a few things.

Varsha:

Your production was very much known for its very daring casting, of course, in that time, but also for the way in which it was very erotic and sexual

Janet:

Because it's play about sex. That came out as a whisper. I didn't mean it to. It's a play... It's a sexual play. If Othello isn't entranced with...I mean, why would he have that amazing soliloquy about, "Haply that I am black? Maybe it's my blackness that is putting on. Maybe I'm getting too old for her." His self-awareness about being the older man, and a black man at that, is there in the text. And her absolute devotion to him as a soul, as a creature... And why would she say, "I'm going to follow him to Cyprus," and elbow her daddy. That was a very strong thing for her to do. Nobody tell me that Desdemona is a patsy. She's really not. She's a very strong-minded, young woman. She falls in love with him, and she's going to go with him.

Varsha:

I actually love that moment. And the way in which she very diplomatically plays it that moment.

Janet:

Yeah, She says, "Once I marry, he supersedes you, dear daddy." And then, the return when she's waiting for him on the quayside, and he's delayed by the storm. And she's there first, anxiously waiting for him. What a love scene that is. And "This and this". That is undeniably a kiss, because Shakespeare always writes touches into his text. So with those textual permissions, I don't think I overdid it.

Janet:

And it's about sexual jealousy. Come on. You know, he's a soldier who's absolutely rubbish in the bedroom. He's fine on a battlefield, but he doesn't know how to cope with the subtleties and pitfalls of La vie sentimentale I don't know how to put it. You know? He has no practice in it. He's a marriage virgin. They both are trying to make their way through to, you know, the sundered portals of a good marriage when they're tripped up and destroyed by Iago.

Varsha:

What was the opening night like, because in such a politically-charged atmosphere-

Janet:

Well, it wasn't that so much, as we were just trying to make the play last in time for the last bus home. Because there's no transport in Johannesburg. You know, no buses. And there came a point when I said, "I ain't going to cut it anymore. It is what it is. So let's see if the audience sit it out." They sat, and they gave it a standing ovation at about quarter past 11 at night. And I think the last buses had gone, but they didn't move. We knew it was holding them.

Janet:

But what was interesting was how the black audience grew and grew and grew, because suddenly, there was a song out there in the streets. A story of a black man was being told, but not patronizingly. This was a play written in some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. It was unprecedented. The black audience rose to about 60%, which you will never see in London ever. And that was in Joburg.

Janet:

And what was even better was nobody's trained to behave in a theater. So sometimes mayhem broke loose, because white people, it's really interesting, like silence when something dramatic is happening. That phrase, you could've heard a pin drop. That's magic for a European audience. It's hell for an African audience, because silence is unnerving. And so, there was always fights going on in the audience. White people say, "Shh," trying to concentrate. And blacks going, "What's happening?" And, "What's going on?" And, "Look out behind you." You know, vociferating. And I thought, "This is exactly what the Globe must have been like on a good matinee in 1598, people shouting and stuff."

Varsha:

I think Shakespeare allows the space to respond as well.

Janet:

I'm sure he expected it. I mean, they used to do, "Look out behind you" to Emilia, just before she got stabbed.

Varsha:

Oh, fantastic. Oh, I would love to save Emilia as well.

Janet:

Oh, Oh, that's a great part.

Varsha:

It's an amazing part.

Janet:

It's arguably the real tragic figure in that play. Wonderful, wonderful part, when the penny drops, my God, she comes out blazing. Doesn't she? Fearless and blazing and dies telling the truth. If that's not a great tragic end, I don't know what is

Varsha:

And I love how she absolutely cannot shut up after this, having been silent for a long time. When the penny drops, she just cannot-

Janet:

She goes for it. Yes.

Varsha:

... cannot stop speaking.

Janet:

But her sense of outrage and her sense of truthfulness just overwhelms any fears you might've had. Picture of an abused wife.

Varsha:

Indeed. Indeed. So we've been talking about your lives in South Africa and in England. And I think you really live in these two worlds, at least these two worlds.

Janet:

I do.

Varsha:

So I wonder if that gives you a different perspective or an insight in characters who are in these overlapping spaces, such as Viola, who's displaced, or Othello or even Antony, who's living in these different worlds at the same time?

Janet:

Yes. Oh, I think so. I understand completely, though, the interlopers and the people who feel they don't belong and the way worlds collide. I mean, one of the reasons I am fascinated with Cleopatra is because she even more outside than any of the other women. There's not one, I think, that stands where she does in the canon.

Varsha:

And you are obsessed with Antony and Cleopatra.

Janet:

Well, I say obsessed. Having played Cleopatra twice at Stratford and in London, and then, having filmed it-

Varsha:

I saw that version.

Janet:

You did?

Varsha:

I absolutely adore your Cleopatra, because I like how she is very commanding. And I like how much she demands, because she teases Antony unbearably. She kind of pushes him and pushes him. And I love that.

Janet:

Listen. Act 1, Scene 3, has got to be most envelope-pushed piece of relationship between a man and a woman that I've ever seen. She takes it to the ultimate in making his life absolutely intolerable. Doesn't she?

Varsha:

Absolutely love that. But I also liked how vulnerable she was as well. And also, you directed Antony and Cleopatra twice.

Janet:

Well, then, many, many years later, I was so fascinated that a man, Shakespeare, could have written a woman, Cleopatra, that is so nuanced, so subtle. To my eyes, absolutely undoable, except by a sort of mature mind, which is why I can't see boys playing it.

Varsha:

Actually, I really want to ask you this, because recently, it has been very much argued that Cleopatra should be played by a black actor. What do you think about this?

Janet:

I mean, we know she was Macedonian, genealogically and historically. Whether Shakespeare's trying to say something else, I think he's trying to say something about Rome and Egypt, not necessarily black and white. Phoebus... The Phoebus line... Sorry, it says-

Varsha:

She says, "I am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black."

Janet:

Amorous pinches black. That's the only reference to black. I mean, Sophie Okonedo did it beautifully.

Varsha:

Oh yeah. I saw that.

Janet:

I saw her and she was... I would like to have given her another two weeks' rehearsal of the inner life of Cleopatra, because exterior, she was fabulous. Beautiful. She's a lovely, wonderful actress. But of course, in a space like the Olivier, all the intensity is lost. It's too big, a space. It's not her fault in the least. You know, what she was brought a wonderful spirit and physical life to Cleopatra. So I don't think you should generalize. I don't think it's like what we said about Hamlet. It's who plays it.

Varsha:

I was going to ask you one more question, because I'm tempted by what you said in a BBC interview with Phillip Dodd in 2014. You said, "Why express yourself, unless there's a need to?" Do you think we still need to express through Shakespeare?

Janet:

Less and less. Less and less, because I find we're a coddled, slightly anemic world. Nobody knows what danger is or fear. And I think all the Shakespeare characters understand very well the extremities of life. Shakespeare's dangerous. And I think we don't know what danger in society is. Although now, political danger's slapping on the left and the right, because we're getting more extremist views in this populist West that's beginning to snarl and yap.

Janet:

One of the reasons you've probably been very perspicacious that I hit on South Africa for this, because if you've lived in a police state, you sort of understand a little bit more what Shakespeare's Star Chamber London must've been like... ears everywhere people listening to you. It's one of the reasons why I find what we don't know about Shakespeare absolutely understandable. Because when you live in a police state, you learn to shut up. You don't speak. You keep zipped, in case you're compromising somebody. And so what is not reported in Shakespeare's life is to me, understandable. You do not log it. You do not write it down. You keep shtum.

Varsha:

In which case, let's end here. Thank you so much. I had a wonderful, insightful conversation.

Janet:

Oh, it's so nice talking to you.

Varsha:

That was Janet Suzman talking about Othello, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and directing Shakespeare. With this episode, we close series one. But fear not, because I'm happy to announce that there is a series two. Very soon, I will be revealing some of the absolutely awesome guests who we have been recording for the upcoming series, which will be launched 23rd, January, 2021. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to Women and Shakespeare, streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and www.womenandshakespeare.com where you will find full transcripts for all the episodes. Until then, keep shattering those glass ceilings.