SA's James Borthwick on being in what was the world's only live stage show

When the pandemic shut theatres around the globe, the cast of the 'Phantom of the Opera' continued to play to packed houses in South Korea

25 October 2020 - 00:03
By Aspasia Karras
Broadway star Meghan Picerno with James Borthwick  in 'Phantom of the Opera'.
Image: Supplied Broadway star Meghan Picerno with James Borthwick in 'Phantom of the Opera'.

James Borthwick, the South African thespian treasure, has just experienced what almost no other actor in the world can claim. He worked. For the past six months he's been in the highly unusual position of treading the boards every day. He reprised the role of Monsieur Firmin in the world tour of the Phantom of the Opera.

Along with 32 other fortunate exceptions to the global pandemic rule he played to a full house in Seoul, South Korea. As theatres around the world from Broadway to Soho shut their doors during this unprecedented and possibly terminal crisis for the industry, this one production bravely carried on.

On a short break at home before flying out at month's end to Taipei to continue the tour, Borthwick said the production had been on a veritable round the world in 80 days tour, taking in Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Tel Aviv after heading off to Seoul in March. He originally left just before SA locked down.

“When I got there we were placed in quarantine for two weeks, I had to report on my wellbeing every day through an app on my phone. Two of the cast in Korea had tested positive. Those were the only two cases for the entire six months. Everything was disinfected, we were distanced from the audience by about three to four metres and after the show there were no backstage visits for autographs. The audience all wore masks, but there was no distancing.”

I asked him if the production was in any way altered to accommodate for Covid. I'd read about a lone production of Jesus Christ Superstar in New York that had imposed social distancing on the stage.

“No masks — the performance was exactly the same — where it called for kissing and touching that went on as normal. But behind the scenes we had bottles of disinfectant and gloves, temperatures taken on arrival at theatre, our props disinfected and imagine, 650 costumes sprayed every night.”

All this is to say that Borthwick is convinced theatres can open again and manage the Covid threat.

“It can be done, there's too much paranoia. We're obedient enough to do the right thing. I don't see why we can't have theatre — they allow us into bars where people take their masks off. In the theatre, people keep them on. Hopefully audiences in SA will realise what they've been missing. There's something so special in a live performance.”

[Opening the theatres] can be done, there's too much paranoia. We're obedient enough to do the right thing
Actor James Borthwick

I wondered whether the incident-free six-month run has to do with the South Korean mentality. It's a hard-working, rule-driven, community-minded society.

“I think there's too much emphasis on the idea that compliance works only in authoritarian states. South Korea isn't an authoritarian state, it came from the individuals, rather than being enforced.”

How did it feel to know that they were in such an unusual situation? “It was uncanny, bizarre — we were the only live show running in the world. Our leading lady playing the role of Christine, Meghan Picerno, left the show to take up the prestigious lead of the Broadway production, which was shut down as she arrived. We were the last people standing. There we were, in a sense, in a cocoon. Protected. The Korean authorities are on it. Transport, medical facilities — super efficient. We felt safe.”

He's going back on tour on the 30th. “I'm going to Taipei, this time in a stadium. Asians are mad for this show — they adore it. If you take Phantom of the Opera you know you will have a hit.”

The show is tiring — eight shows a week — two on a Saturday and two on a Sunday.

“In SA we're not accustomed to being in a show indefinitely — we don't have the audience. One of the people on the Broadway show played the same role for 17 years. But I've enjoyed it thoroughly. They cast this thing everywhere in the world — US, Canada, China, Australia, Russia. It's professional and brilliant that there are 10 South Africans out of a cast of 32. This business of employing South Africans is a massive boon to us in terms of the quality.”

Borthwick is still learning. “I'm the only non-trained singer in the principals — a guy who knocked on the back door and got in. I've learnt so much even at my late age. They're very tolerant. I can't even read music. If you see who else is in it — it was very intimidating. In any art form if you think you know it all, it is over. Judi Dench said, 'Firstly never take yourself too seriously, take your job seriously and never think you know it all'. If you take that approach it adds to your longevity.”

Long live James Borthwick. Long live the theatre.