Life & Culture

An audience with Dame Janet

Dame Janet Suzman's latest role is as a Holocaust survivor. She tells John Nathan why the story resonates today.


Dame Janet Suzman is striding through the sleek foyer of Home, Manchester’s newest theatre. Her skiing glasses lend her a somewhat rock-star look, though they hide her ice-blue eyes. Still, her penetrating gaze is all around emanating like lasers from posters in the building advertising her latest play.

Suzman is playing the eponymous Rose, the fictional heroine of Martin Sherman’s 1999 one woman play about an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor. It’s a demanding part. Over two hours on stage (with an interval) is a tough ask. But, as we wait in a hotel restaurant next door for lunch — dark glasses now removed — Suzman shrugs off any suggestion that, at 78, stamina might be an issue.

“We don’t talk about age. What’s the point? You run the race you have to run. It’s not an issue.” She says this in the clipped, perfect diction of a Shakespearian actress. Her Royal Shakespeare Company Cleopatra of 1972, directed by her former husband Trevor Nunn, is still considered definitive.

She, too, directs, not just the Bard but other classical playwrights, both in Britain and her native South Africa, which she left for London at the age of 20.

“You either can stand up in the morning or you can’t,” she adds.

I feel chastened, and it won’t be the last time during this conversation. It seems my every question or suggestion about the theatre is swatted away with the dismissive air of a headmistress chiding one of her lesser talented pupils.

What drew her to Sherman’s play?

“That’s simple. The playwright and the writing. It’s very easy. There’s no mystery to a proper actor — and I am a proper actor. By that I mean I’m classically trained. I respect text.”

Theatre, she explains, is nothing if it fails to engage with the world around us. Warming to her theme, I say it can be an antidote to disturbing times. “It’s not an antidote,” she cuts. Well, therapy then. “Not therapy,” she says, pained by my lack of insight. I might as well have said theatre was like bubble-gum. “Life is difficult,” she says, feeling the need to go back to basics. “People want to experience that from the safety of a comfortable seat.”

There are few lives more difficult than the one lived by Sherman’s Rose. She was born, she tells us, in a Ukrainian shtetl, although she is speaking in a Florida hotel which she runs and which bears her name. During the course of her vivid monologue, she relates the detail of that journey: how she moved to Warsaw, nearly starved to death in the ghetto where her daughter was killed, and settled in America where she became a mother again.

Yet this is no misery memoir. As she sits popping pills for various ailments, one-liners worthy of a Borscht Belt comedian pour out of her. The play works both as a gripping story and as a beautifully observed portrait of a Jewish archetype. But it gets its political edge from Rose’s relationship with Israel. She had intended to live there before the British stopped her and thousands of other Jewish refugees from settling in Palestine.

Instead, it’s her son who makes aliyah, and slowly her relationship with him and his new country is soured by what she sees as Israel’s unjust treatment of the Palestinians. For Suzman, a long-standing critic of Israel, the parallels with Rose are obvious.

“I’m Jewish rather like Rose is,” says the actress who was brought up in a well-to-do family that was Jewish, though not observant, rather like the family of her famous aunt Helen, South Africa’s most formidable white anti-apartheid campaigner.

“Rose is full of ethical doubts, like I am,” continues Suzman. “She questions everything. Being brought up in South Africa, I was always mystified by Jews who ran along with apartheid. Because you would think that people who suffered prejudice would be the first people to say ‘This won’t do.’ But such is not the case. There were of course a whole slew of really courageous people who happened to be Jewish in South Africa, of which my aunt Helen was the most famous. But certainly there were quite a few others. But there’s a lovely line in the play when Rose says ‘Victims of prejudice seem susceptible to the disease themselves.’”

But the reason the play should be revived now, she says, has more to do with Rose’s status as a refugee than her growing scepticism of Israel.

“That’s why we’re doing the play now. There are desperate people out there on the Mediterranean running from desperate times, looking for a better life.

“When a boy Rose meets from the [Palestine-bound Jewish refugee ship] Exodus says ‘Jump, Rose!’ she jumps into a future she knows nothing about. I guess on a Libyan ship somebody will say ‘Jump!’ and they’ll jump into a dinghy not knowing where they are going. That happens to Rose. So there are resonances with people who have ghastly lives.”

At last, our lunch arrives. We both ordered a Niçoise. What arrives is unrecognisable. Tiny cubes of tuna are lined up on an almost bare plate like chess pieces. I fully expect this classical actor to send this self consciously avant-garde interpretation of a classic back to the kitchen. But it turns out she’s more open minded than that. “Delicious,” she says.

And then at last I say something about theatre with which she agrees. Suzman is offering an example of the theatre’s ability to tap into current events. She was appearing in an RSC production of Richard III when one evening the cast and the audience became aware that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

“It gave an unbearable resonance to the play. Actor and audience were in the same boat. We all knew what the play was about, the death of kings.”

But, unlike the audience, you at least get to respond to the world on stage. “Yes, that’s true,” she says. “I can express my frustrations and interests through drama. Like when Rose asks: ‘Who believes in God except for the fanatically committed?’ That’s a line for now.” 

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