A Conversation with Janice Honeyman and Anna-Mart van der Merwe

Theatre legends Janice Honeyman and Anna-Mart van der Merwe have joined forces once again, this time tackling Florian Zeller’s The Mother, which opened at The Fugard Theatre last week. Directed by Ms. Honeyman and starring Ms. van der Merwe as the title character, The Mother tells the story of Anne, a woman losing her grip on reality as her life spins out of control. The Mother follows its companion piece, The Fatherwhich had a sold-out run at  The Fugard last year. 

For the Afrikaans translation of this article, please click here.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: If I have to be honest I think maybe it’s the way I grew up. I grew up in a platteland and I was a laatlam of five so I was pretty much an only child to a certain extent. I had many days and hours of playing on my own and being able to daydream and fantasize. I think that thing of imagination and storytelling and other worlds became a place in which I felt comfortable and not scared to go into. My father and mother were open to music. I think all of that prepared a landscape for me but it was only in matric where I decided to pursue acting, because I wanted a job that could function in society and I thought ok I’d like it to be in the arts but I didn’t do writing, I didn’t do singing so I thought acting was like storytelling and that could be functional. I went to Stellenbosch University, I did two years of languages but in that time I wanted to study drama and I couldn’t get in. So Babs Laker who was from the Akademie vir Dramakuns, used to come through Stellenbosch and she gave classes and I secretly went there. My dad didn’t know. I would say that in the end what gave me the confidence or catapulted me to go into acting was Babs Laker. And then I went to UCT and I studied Drama. 

Janice Honeyman: I’ve got a very interesting story. I went to Milnerton Primary School and we didn’t have any speech or drama at all and then suddenly when I was in about standard one, this woman with blonde hair in a big bun arrived at the school and she was going to be the speech teacher. This lady, Mrs. Vos, was the drama teacher and we all had to get a speech book and this was so unimportant to me that I used to tear out the back page of the speech book and write or draw and do my own thing but you know when you have those exercise books and you tear the back page, the front page comes loose. I was doing this and she came around and she picked up my book and as she picked it up, the whole book fell apart and she said “Look at this! This is such disrespect for the arts. If you respected the arts as a person, you would not have done this, you would have treasured this speech book. And I refuse to teach you anymore unless you start to focus on the arts!” [To Anna-Mart:] Do you remember Barbs Laker’s husband’s name was Mr. Vos? It was Babs Laker! And Babs became an absolute inspiration for me for my whole career after that. She made feel very appreciative but then I got to know her when I was at varsity. She played Hecuba in The Trojan Women and I was a troll or something. Babs played a part in my life from the very beginning of my drama life ’til now. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: When were you in that because I finished UCT and then I got a contract at The Windybrow Theatre in Hillbrow and the first production I was in, flip this is incredible synchronicity of cycle, was Dieter Reible directing Women of Troy and Babs Laker played Hecuba! I was not a troll but in the chorus.

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Janice Honeyman. Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer
What was it about The Mother that attracted you to the production?

Janice Honeyman: I was offered it. I hadn’t seen The Father but I had heard of the Afrikaans version, Die Pa with Chris van Niekerk and I heard it was a very good play and he was very good in it. Then they did The Father here and I was overseas and at the time Daniel (Galloway) phoned me and said, “We have a piece and it’s called The Mother and we think a woman should direct The Mother. Are you interested?” I hadn’t read the play. I just said yes before I read the play. Then I read the play [and thought], “Oh hell, now we’ve got a something on our plate here.” And then obviously I just worked and worked and worked. The first thing I did after I read it was I phoned Daniel and said, “There’s only one person who can play this and it’s Anna-Mart and I don’t want to do it without her.” Then I researched and read until I really knew the play and found amazing identity points everywhere and it really became integrated into my whole being. Out of all the serious plays I’ve done, and I’ve done many, this is one of them that is just like a gogga inside of you, infested. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: I think my journey is pretty much the same. As a performer, you know that thing of that insecurity or worry anytime a project comes, even though it’s an incredible gift. You never feel like a grownup actor. Every production is new and fresh. You have to start from zero again. For me, a story works for a storyteller. Whether the director is male or female, that is the main storyteller and we journey with the play together. But I do find with women, and specifically with Janice, you start to know yourself and the things in yourself that inhibit you from things that you have fear or you struggle with, to be able to let your instrument just be able to play. It’s a constant struggle, but I do know that Janice throughout my life, as a director but also as a human being, she just pushes me off very high places. I always say, “Sy skop my onder my gat.” Of course she always catches you but it’s in the process, I know, and that’s why I understand. For all of us doing this play, it is quite an excruciating journey and still is and will be. This is the kind of play that we do one at a time. You cannot think about the run. We said to each other, “It’s one life at a time.” In terms of why I jumped at it was that I knew, not only about the wonderful gift of work and the play, in this play specifically is you also know as an artist that sometimes you need the masters to come in and you still have to be on your learning journey. We don’t get adult education as actors in South Africa. You only get your adult education by doing. Then what is great, if you have constant directors in your life that you know are the ones that say “push push push” so you try to struggle through that which is actually holding you back.

Janice Honeyman: As a director, one knows what a journey you have to go through. When you are reading the play you know it is a particularly difficult journey. All of them are challenging. Everything that I have done with Anna-Mart has been work that is a challenge to me, even Twelfth Night in Afrikaans. But it is knowing that the people you are going with, in the show, are going to hold their noses and jump. That’s what Anna-Mart has always done. We have always done pieces, and I have about eight more in my mind that I want to use her in because I need actors who are brave and I need actors who are thinking and I need actors who are feeling. And Anna-Mart is all those. She is so prepared to be honest and unzip and open. It’s about looking inside. It’s about finding when you can say to yourself that vulnerabilities are very often what make a performance good. We are textured. 

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Anna-Mart van der Merwe in The Mother. Photo credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

I’ve now seen both pieces but I’ve found that this piece hits you on a different level. With The Father, you watch his journey and he gets progressively worse as the play goes on. With The Mother, it’s full throttle from the beginning. Because of the way the play is structured, did your process have to change?

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: In what way change?

I guess, how you approach the material. From what I gather, not having read the play, it must be hard to find the throughline of the journey. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: Yes, we had to pretty much understand and respect that Zeller’s style of writing will be confusing. As it is confusing for us to read and say, “that’s ok” because that is what he is saying. Life is confusing. People are confusing. We go, “You are supposed to be my mother. Why are you behaving like that? It confuses me. It’s leaves me feeling disturbed.” But for her, there’s a logic even if it’s just emotional and unexplainable. If it’s emotional it’s probably not a cognitive logic, it is an emotional logic. For all of us, we really have to go right through so I know exactly where or what are the dots and how it connects for Anne and how it connects, if it doesn’t connect, and to know that is the moment and there is no connection. Yes, we really had to work very hard because in the beginning we thought, “What is this first scene?” It’s not like you start and then you build. At the end of the day we try to hear Zeller‘s music. 

Janice Honeyman: And it’s interesting because with this play, you can’t use those old techniques. As a director one of my big things is to orchestrate the piece so that it starts and it builds and it dips and I try to get that from the actors through notes and through questions and through finding how we pull the set up. This one, you start it and all that stuff that we have to build through just gets turned on its head because the first scene, it’s focused in and it scares them. The first time that they did it without scripts and it finished, I looked at Birrie [le Roux] and her mouth was open and I realised that mine was too. The stunning emotional charge in the first scene sets it up so that from then on, it doesn’t matter if the scene is refined and played almost like a drawing room comedy in the second scene, we’ve experienced the razor blades that have been slashing. As they say the words that we have heard before, we associate the rest of them with what was said but isn’t being said in the scene. It’s a look at someone who spends a lot of time alone in the midst of anti-depressants and alcohol and loneliness and despair and loss and grieving and all those things and that is what we have to integrate into the whole play. Between each scene, I have the visuals of Anna-Mart’s face and her wandering around in the dark kind of doing the same thing that she has done before. Those three big Anna-Mart faces are about what is happening in this world that I am used to? You have been the mother, the holder, the carrier and now she needs carrying and nobody is carrying her. When you are disturbed in the first scene of the play, you as an audience member can’t be undisturbed after that. You have to continue on the journey that we are going on. It was a wonderful opening night but it was also a very strange opening night, people afterwards were standing there not looking at me and one woman said, excuse my language, “What the fuck do you think you are doing to us? Why did you do that? We didn’t need to see all of that.” You did, you know. Did you recognise any of it? “Yes we recognize it all!” So I said “exactly.” That is what Zeller does. He is astounding.

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Anna-Mart van der Merwe. Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: Zeller wrote this before he wrote The Father and for me, apart from the thing that he said about you being able to have a ‘sympathetic in’ to a person with Alzheimer’s because it is terrible to see that happen and then the family around being so impatient with this person’s journey or with his experience. But I found that he was more logical and precise whereas here I thought, “Why is it so disturbing?” I realised that Zeller is saying that it is the dangerous world of emotions that we don’t want to admit. With a physical illness, you are uncomfortable and you are disturbed by it and then you can take a pill or have an operation or something and hopefully in a few months’ time that will be resolved and you will stop having that problem. We often find with emotions, even if you are not struggling with a mental illness, we all know the power and the intensity of emotions and sometimes you can’t stop feeling them. 

Janice Honeyman: There is no one in the whole wide world that hasn’t come from a mother. There is a blood connection and yes, there is an umbilical cord that gets cut but there is that thread that links you to your mother that is one of the most precious relationships to be in and one of the most horrifically difficult relationships. Every single mother has to give up her child and it is a really difficult thing. As Anna-Mart said Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing, it happens and there will be death but you can prepare for it. Somehow with women and depression, the greatest phrase that everyone uses is, “Oh come on, pull yourself together.” And the father says it in the play. Of course, it is a very unsympathetic medical state, I suppose. When I first read the play, I thought, “Shit, this woman irritates me.” And that was only for the very first read and then as I got to the end of the play, I got a rawness in here that has never gone away since then. There are lines in this play that as they are said set off alarm bells and compute the meanings. You go, “Oh I know this. That is what my mother has said to me.” There is a line in the last scene that is actually the last sentence that my mother ever said, “I want to go home. Let’s go home.” And Zeller got it. It’s in the play. I think that happens to anyone who’s been through that sort of situation with their mother. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: And I agree with that. We see our mothers or the concept of mothers as a whole [like] the Mother Mary, the archetype of mothers, this nurturing, all-loving, unconditional loving, beautiful person who is always just there solid as a rock. You forget it’s a human being exactly like all of us. The moment you become a mother, there is no looking back. You will give your life for this child. It just never goes away until you die. But you don’t not become that person anymore. You are still that girl who was born maybe 20 years ago with all the fears and all the problems in your personality or whatever and that might still happen to you. I think for me, the reaction from women and the shame that they talk about is that thing of, “I know I am supposed to be a mother but fuck.” And that’s part of the shame that they deal with, the secret lives of mothers and not feeling competent. I think Zeller is unlocking unbelievable conversations in the foyer that women have with me about womanhood and their motherhood. 

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Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

Janice Honeyman: Last night was opening night and opening nights are usually quite superficial and, “Oh darling, lovely show.” My sister-in-law said to me “Jan, I’m completely shocked and I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk. It touched every single part of me because I am a mother and because I have a mother.”  But then what is happening with this play, post-menopausal empty nest syndrome, is that with women, you don’t give up your world, your world gets taken away from you by society. It holds you in chains for the first half of your life of being a mother and then it snaps the chains and goes off somewhere and leaves you in this bloody desert with nothing to feed you after that because everybody is getting on with their lives. If you take the mother as seriously as Anne does take the mother in this play, she is left with nothing. She is left completely empty.

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: It’s interesting with the research I’ve done, empty nest syndrome inevitably coincides with your hormonal changes that will happen that bring on depression. 

Janice Honeyman: There’s a redundancy factor that is terrifying for women particularly if they have committed themselves so completely to it. Suddenly your hormones are gone, your sexiness is gone, your libido is gone, your attractiveness is gone, your womanhood is gone, and your children are gone. And usually your husband buggers off as well. What are you left with?

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Graham Hopkins and Anna-Mart van der Merwe in The Mother. Photo Credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

(To Janice) I think one of the things that I found so special about seeing the show was that I was seated in front of you. As engrossed as I was in the play, I would catch moments when I heard you laughing or having an experience towards it. You have been working on it for so long and already seen it, that it’s quite incredible to see you still experiencing very visceral reactions to what is going on onstage. 

Janice Honeyman: It’s because I do love actors very much and when they do it right and they do it well it does touch me. It’s also that this play starts over and over. If they start doing the play as a run and they don’t deal with the immediacy of it in the moment, in the second, it is not going to work in the same way. It’ll work but people might get a little bit impatient with it. It’s got to be as serial as it might have been in the process. 

I wanted to touch on individual projects of each of yours. Anna-Mart, I saw The Painted Rocks last year. Why the decision to come back and work with The Fugard again?

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: I think firstly, it’s because it feels like real theatre, the building, the people, the way they do things, etc. In that way, The Fugard is an incredible space to work in and it comes from top management, what they create and all of that. You have a solid rehearsal period and a run, but for me it is often about more than just the place or the time, it is about the story and the people. The connection, like I mentioned with the play and with Janice but the added thing is that it is at The Fugard. As an actor, it really is such a wonderful space to work in. 

Janice Honeyman: It is completely supported. There is a team there who is not egotistical. They are there for the theatre and for the survival of that theatre and for the survival of theatre itself. I think the gift that Eric Abraham has given to Cape Town is astounding. He has crafted a little place in theatre heaven for himself because he has made sure that the place stays top-notch and that it stays with the atmosphere that it has got and it is a gift to Cape Town and we should be really thankful. It really is a pleasure. 

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Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

And for you, Janice, I remember seeing your production of The Tempest when I was young and it changing my entire perception of Shakespeare. I know that for a lot of children, their first experience of theatre is through your pantos and through your work. Is there any pressure around what you do next because you have influenced so many people and changed the face of theatre in South Africa for the better?

Janice Honeyman: There is a pressure, always. And this play is about time passing and time watching as the world goes on. It is terribly important to me to do plays like this. I will be doing more pantos and I am doing The Color Purple which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a book that has always been close to my heart and we’ve managed to get together, what I think, is a fantastic, young and fresh cast. I am really looking forward to that happening this time next year. I am going to England to do a production directly after this. It’s something a little different. It’s a wild, Roman romp, ribald and rude and naughty and my composer keeps sending me the next song and they are all rumpy-pumpy we are doing it with sousaphones and bagpipes and cymbals. It’s a lovely, fantastic play and I am also using a fair amount of my panto experience in an adult way in a RSC production. It’s not a usual RSC production. I am also going to force myself, and it’s not a bad thing, but I have also written many children’s books and I am going to illustrate them and somehow get them published. I’m really wanting to take a little time off of directing to start illustrating. 

Is there anything still on either of your professional bucket lists that you would still like to do?

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: I’ve always said that a story looks for a storyteller so I am open. No, I can’t say that I have ever thought, “I still want to play that role.” I think there’s a part of me that then you jinx it. I feel I am open and the older I get now, I think you get to a place where the sum total of your life is much more than just the work that you do. There are other areas that you need to go and explore and the clock is ticking. No, I can’t say there’s something that I want to do. I just think that this life is incredible and I’ll keep walking and see what is around the next corner. 

Janice Honeyman: I mean I still do have a few secret desires. I just find that with everything I have done in my career, it’s really strange that I have never done The Magic Flute and I have never done A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those are the two shows that I absolutely know are inside me. Those are two on the wish list but for the rest I really just want to snorkel. I want to go around the world, never touching a continent and going from island to island with my head in the water. That is what I would love to do. 

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Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Janice Honeyman: Only do what you really want to do. Because if you are doing something that you don’t want to do then your heart isn’t in it and so you have to be really willing to do it. You do it with passion and with love and commitment and preoccupation. Only do what you really want to do. The times when I have done what I didn’t want to do, I have messed up royally. It has to be a feeling that you love it.

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: Two things. The one, Athol Fugard once said in a rehearsal process and he said, “No man, a good performance doesn’t come from a hernia.” I thought that was quite funny. 

Janice Honeyman: Ja. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: But also, someone also said to me, “Don’t ever fear anyone in your life.” When I say fear I think it means that we often get into scenarios with people where you fear the scenario or you fear the person but it’s to try to never ever do that. Take a deep breath and relax. Just be. 

Janice Honeyman: Because you’ll have a tainted response that you fear. My dad always used to say to me, he used to start everything, “Well Jan,” he said, “Well Jan, why are you getting so stressed about things? Why are you sweating like a pig and getting red in the face?” Which, I still do every opening night. He said, “It just takes away your energy.” It’s true; fear is a waste of time. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: And I think the thing is that if it comes your way, what I try to do is just walk through it. I might get a fear burn mark but I just need to walk through it. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Janice Honeyman: Anna-Mart van der Merwe. 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: Janice Honeyman!

Great, and we’re done! 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe: In a landscape of just actors, there are people that when you start out, and that’s what I miss about being in companies, there are so many young actors that I go, “I love the young generation and what they are doing now.” I love The Mechanicals and Tinarie van Wyk-Loots and young male actors as well in the Afrikaans and English set-up. It’s just extraordinary and how kids sing and dance nowadays. What I remember, when I was part of a company, is that you work with all the generations and you could learn at the knees of a Marius Weyers, a Sandra Prinsloo, a Louis van Niekerk, Antoinette KellermanBabs LakerGraham Hopkins, Michael RichardRobert Whitehead and Fiona Ramsey. That love of actors that we can grow up and see their work, I think in terms of artists in terms of acting, it’s quite extraordinary.

Janice Honeyman: There are brilliant women in the arts in South Africa and they range right the way through the actual arts doing to organizing the arts. There is a whole host of women directors who I’ve always admired. Ilse van Hemert, she’s one of them. As is Lucille Gillwald, and they teach you so much but then so did Athol Fugard, so did Barney Simon. The great thing about theatre, and it might not be totally true about age, but with gender, it is not sexist. I have never struggled in the theatre because I am a woman. Everybody has helped me as much as I need and with as much generosity as I need. That is the wonderful thing. For the main part, theatre can be non-ageist and you can have a younger person who is your friend playing with you on stage and a 70 year-old actress playing the lead and all of us talk together, eat together, laugh together, and it is so lovely that can happen. We have two lovely young people in this that I really sort of value what they have to contribute to me and stuff that I don’t understand. 

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Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

The Mother runs at The Fugard Theatre until March 4th 2017. For tickets or more information, click here

Afrikaans translation by Maria Vos

With sincere thanks and gratitude to Ms. Honeyman and Ms. van der Merwe.

Special thanks to Maria Vos, Jesse KramerHannah Baker, Georgia Lahusen and Christine Skinner

All production photos taken by Daniel Rutland Manners and given with permission. 

All black and white photos were taken on February 10th 2017 in The Fugard Theatre Annex by Jesse Kramer

Sarafina Magazine and Jesse Kramer maintain copyrights over all images. For inquiries or usage please contact us

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