Table Talk

'I've been able to play my life away' - Janice Honeyman on 'Snow White'

Janice Honeyman, the acclaimed director of Christmas pantomime 'Snow White', has always lived in her own riotous imagination

25 November 2018 - 00:37 By GILLIAN ANSTEY

Janice Honeyman begins all her rehearsal processes, whether a serious play, a musical or a panto, with the words: "It's storytime!"
But she doesn't need a script, actors, stage or even an empty space to tell stories. Plonk yourself down beside her and you're guaranteed to be mesmerised because she doesn't simply chat, she performs.
Each moment and memory is so vividly related, with facial expressions and gestures, you feel as if you are right there with her at the time, such as when Janice the schoolgirl peers over the top of the high front counter of the adult section of Rondebosch public library to ask if she can join, only to be confronted with: "Are you intermediate?" to which she responds: "No, I'm Presbyterian."
Honeyman is a hoot. Minutes into her company you see evidence of her riotous imagination. She introduces her dogs as if they were royalty. Each has a name similar to her pantomime characters: "Toff-o-Luxe Gangooly [no prizes for guessing her favourite sweets and cricketer]; George Ashley de Villiers [pronounced the French way with a silent "s" on Villiers], born on a rubbish dump in Villiersdorp, son of a drug dealer; and Sophia Rosa de Formosa de Twentieth Century Fox.
"I cannot think of an equivalent human being that I love in this particular way as these three,'' Honeyman says.
As a child she wanted to be a vet but couldn't because "I was lucky enough to fail maths'' in what is now grade 10. Lucky, she explains, because she had to do specialised literature instead "and that's the best thing that could have happened to me''. She had top teachers at San Souci Girls' High School in Newlands, Cape Town, "and we were doing second-year varsity English and literature in standard 9".
This ability to see adversity as a positive step in a new direction is a common attribute of successful people, and Honeyman is successful. She has written, acted in or directed more than 250 productions in a career spanning more than 50 years that shows no signs of abating. She has so many ideas for shows, she could keep going forever.
After the panto, Snow White, at the Joburg Theatre, the 31st she has written and directed, next up is her fifth production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK: John Kani's Kunene and the King, a co-production with the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, starring Kani and SA-born actor Sir Antony Sher.
Another example of her ability to turn bad luck into good was when she broke her leg ice skating after studying drama at UCT and clinching a contract with the now-defunct Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (Pact). In a documented conversation with actress Vanessa Cooke - part of the Market Theatre's Oral History Project housed in the Historical Papers Research Archive at Wits University - Honeyman recalls the response of the head of Pact Drama, Mannie Manim: "Listen, you're on a three-year contract and you're not going to sit around for however long this is going to take to get better. You'd better direct. Here's a library programme and here's a children's play. Do it."
Her leg took eight months to heal and that was "my lucky break'', she says, because it forced her into directing.
She still acted, though, and one of the directors she worked with a lot was Barney Simon, who together with Manim co-founded the Market Theatre, where both have auditoriums named after them.
Simon, Honeyman says, believed "you've got to suffer for your art, you've got to live your art, you've got to get right into it''.
So when she played the role of Hester in Athol Fugard's play, Hello and Goodbye, a character working as a prostitute in Joburg, not only did Simon not allow her to communicate with anyone from the first day of rehearsals in order for her to experience Hester's loneliness, he also made Honeyman experience the character's lifestyle.
"This is Janice Honeyman, Presbyterian and puritan, conservative household, who had to go and be a prostitute,'' she declares.
"He made me go to a café bioscope in downtown Johannesburg dressed as a prostitute, with stockings and sandals and a duffel coat - my mother never let me wear a duffel coat because she said it was common - a skirt with a slit up the back, too much eye make-up, watching a movie.
"Suddenly there was a guy sitting next to me. From about three seats away he'd shifted closer and closer and then he started misbehaving. And, dressed like a whore, I stood up and in my most posh Cape Town San Souci English said: 'Excuse me, my dear fellow, what on earth do you think you're doing?' '' She laughs.
"Barney, the bastard, laughed until he cried and scratched his beard and said: 'Ja, ja, now you know, now you know'.''
She has a host of anecdotes such as the time when, as the director of An Arabian Night at the Market Theatre, she had to step into the role of actor David Eppel, who had been bitten by a red ant.
"I was a large lady and there wasn't a costume to fit me,'' she told Cooke in her interview, so she had to wear the spare costume of a tinier actress. "David had very proudly learned to cartwheel and twirl, 'coz he was playing a Whirling Dervish, and I had to do it. Ching, ching, ching, and I did my cartwheels and got up again and the audience went, Whaaaah! And they laughed and laughed. I thought, hell, I was quite good.''
Then she noticed none of the audience was looking at the action. Eventually Cooke, also in the show, pointed to her, and she saw one breast had popped out of her costume. "I had to get my boob back without anyone noticing. I was poured into the costume, and it wouldn't go. So I had to like fold it in, smerchel it down, and when I eventually got it back in, the audience applauded. It was unbelievably embarrassing.''
And then there was the technical mishap in It's Storytime - Amabali!, which featured two mango-baobab-type trees that grow like a concertina.
"On the opening night, the person pulling the ropes for the trees got so overexcited that he missed his what we call a dead - which is a mark on the rope where you stop - and he pulled it and pulled it, and as the trees grew, they grew and grew and started flying. They flew right up to the grid and there were these magic trees floating in the air. It was lovely.''
Honeyman didn't grow up going to the theatre a lot. So when a teacher walked into the classroom at Greenfields Girls' Primary School in Kenilworth and said: "Hands up anyone who wants to do drama, I sat like kippie. And then I said to my friend, Allison Isaac, next to me, [Honeyman drops her voice to a loud whisper], 'What's drama?'
" 'You must do it, you must do it, you just play around and it's lovely,' she said.
"And you do, you just mess around. And I've done it ever since. I love the fact I have been able to play my life away.''
The most astonishing aspect of Janice Honeyman's new production of Snow White lasts only a few minutes but is so wondrous it lifts the panto to a new high. A familiar device in movies, this is seemingly the first time it has been used in live theatre in SA: a scene in 3D.
The audience wears made-in-SA 3D glasses while the seven dwarves rush through the forest to rescue Snow White from the evil witch, a trepidatious journey made all the more nerve-racking by giant insects flying across the auditorium seemingly headed for people's laps. A gil (shriek) and a wonder!
But the success of this year's panto is not about technology.
From the moment the ever-endearing Desmond Dube, as Dame Dolla Dludlu iDiddledaddledoodle, steps onto the stage, it is almost impossible not to grin with sheer delight, an emotion which never lets up until the inevitable fairytale happily-ever-after ending.
The entire cast is top notch, especially Kiruna-Lind Devar's immaculate performance in the title role, and comedian and award-winning actor Sne Dladla as the dame's son Dompie.
And it is fun to see former radio host John Robbie on stage as Norman Knockiknees, the Major Dumb-Ou, with sly references in the dialogue to his time as an Ireland international rugby scrumhalf.
With a witty script, recognisable pop songs and an abundance of local resonances such as Prince Chuck B Charming (Tshepo Ngokoane) in skins, and lines like the 1929 American hit Tiptoe Through the Tulips transformed to "Tiptoe on a tulip, on a vygie, on a leeubekkie" - the fairytale is home-grown in content but world class in presentation.
'Snow White, the Fairest Pantomime in the Land', is at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein until December 23..

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