A Q and A with Dame Janet Suzman

08 July 2020

Time to Read


This week we've been lucky enough to speak to Dame Janet Suzman, star of numerous Shakespearean (including Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra and many more) plays across both theatre and television. We asked her about her favourite holiday experiences, what she last saw at the theatre and how it is integral to Britain, and how it felt to be named a Dame.

1. What/When was your last visit to the theater before lockdown and what did you see?

I can’t honestly remember if it was precisely the last thing I saw before lockdown, (which just shows whatever I did last see must have been unmemorable, to me anyway) but I do vividly remember an all-black cast in an adaptation at The National Theatre of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” now set during the Nigerian-Biafran war, which was tremendously lively and moving.

2. If you had 3 days to spend in any city where would it be and why ?

All alone because of lockdown, and wearing of course a custom-made Hazmat suit, I would magically waft myself to that magical theatre in Athens called Herod Atticus, and I would watch a spectacular production of an ancient play called The Bacchae with a hundred young girls in the chorus snaking their ancient dances across the chequered Roman floor of the theatre, and the ghost of Katina Paxinou mouthing her violent imprecations with the sonorous voice of a woman possessed. I fell in love with Greece when I was 20 years old at such a performance, with a bright moon shining in a black sky lighting up the most beautiful building in the world standing on its rock above us, the Parthenon. So, yes, I would re-visit Athens and the mysterious ruined marble monuments that litter that wild and stony country washed with bright sunshine, with winter wild-flowers sprinkling the mountains and a cloudless azure sky above.

3. What has been your favorite holiday destination so far and do you have a dream destination that you would like to visit next?

Oh definitely South Africa because I was born there and it is a spectacularly beautiful country, and Cape Town the best holiday city for anyone. My family has a very old house - old for Africa - facing the huge green Indian ocean near a small fishing village called Kalk Bay, and that’s my favourite destination of all. But my dream is to visit Namibia and see the last animal paradise on earth at the Okovango Delta and see the dunes of the empty desert stretching to infinity.

4. Can you share with us your best memory from a holiday?

Standing on the wide veranda of that old house to spy the small fleet of fishing smacks coming home to Kalk Bay harbour after a night out in the bay, and running the mile to buy fresh mackerel off the harbour-side, and then home and eating them grilled for breakfast, with toast. Yum!

5. What’s your holiday drink of choice?

A Ramos Gin Fizz - some bar in San Francisco and along that west coast makes these snow-white liquid heavens.

6. What is your best recommendation for a holiday read?

All of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. There are 21 or 22 of them, so take your pick.

7. What has been the most defining moment of your career?

That’s for others to say. You always think you can do better.

8. You also have a famous sister that has had a global Impact on politics and injustices, have any of her actions impacted your life?

You are thinking of my justly famous Aunt Helen Suzman, elected to a liberal seat in the South African Parliament and who acted as a spirited one-woman opposition to the ruling apartheid government for 35 years. Amongst a million other useful changes, she arranged for political prisoners to be able to take correspondence degrees so they called Mandela’s prison the University of Robben Island. I have been all my life opposed to racism, covert or overt, anywhere, always.

9. You have many famous friends and were married to an theatre director please can you share your thoughts on the creative industry in Britain?

I was married to a great theatre director for 17 years and we have a son who is a physicist and not drawn to the theatre, for which I am thankful, because this dreadful virus has put the performing arts into grave danger. It is for its creative industries that Britain is best loved and best known as a tourist destination. Every night in London forty plus theatres raise their curtains to a full house, every night people switch on their TV’s after a hard day, every evening people go to sit in a cinema and watch their stars light up a screen, every moment of every day people pore over their devices to watch streamed entertainment, in every town there is a concert hall or a rep theatre where people love to gather and meet and watch and enjoy stuff. There is an unending demand to keep boredom at bay and inspire the imagination; as an actor I know that performing stories is the most powerful way of doing that.

10. You are a Dame!! when you heard the news how did you react?

I thought the letter telling me was a Tax demand, and then I opened it and disbelief flooded me. And then manic laughter. And then a sort of solemn moment where I saw it as a very gracious offer and I felt it would be very ungracious of me to refuse what I really felt was an undeserved honour. And then finally I thought who am I to refuse? And I still think that. But Damehood is vexed because it’s not a word people relate to. It is in fact the equivalent of a Knighthood and so in the interests of clarity I would much rather be addressed as Sir Janet than the usual Dame Suzman, because at least we’d all know where we are then. As it is I hardly ever use my title much at all.