Memories of theatre giants

Mary Benson’s new book celebrates Athol Fugard and Barney Simon, writes MATTHEW KROUSE

THE present era of truth and reconciliation is marked by recollections of tragedy, as well as tales of great accomplishment. It can even be amusing, in hindsight, to hear some of the stories of the “struggle years” – stories such as the way people had to bury caches of contraband books under floorboards and in backyards.

The books of Mary Benson were prominent among those buried or otherwise hidden. Her biography of Nelson Mandela and her history of the African National Congress, The Struggle for a Birthright were among those banned by the apartheid state.

Benson was a confidante of communist leader Bram Fischer, and a host of Mandela’s when he left South Africa in 1962 and travelled the world seeking support for the ANC. She was also the first person, in 1963, to testify before the United Nations about the evils of apartheid.

Now 77, Benson spent almost three decades in exile. She returns to South Africa now as a regular visitor – a renowned historian, journalist, activist and novelist.

It was on one of her visits in 1995 that her friend and regular London housemate, Barney Simon, died suddenly after heart surgery. Benson celebrates Simon – and another lifelong friend, Athol Fugard – in her memoir, Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre (published by Ravan). The subtitle is drawn from a 1963 letter to Benson from Fugard, describing his plans for an upcoming production.

Benson and I met in a comfortable suburban Johannesburg house, on one of her recent visits. Hunting for historic photographs, she opened a large envelope, and out poured streams of rare images, taken by her – Mandela in front of Cromwell’s statue; Joe Slovo and Ruth First; Fugard and, of course, Simon.

Benson’s new book is a direct response to his death. It is also a privileged insight into the work and lives of two of the major proponents of a South African theatre now striving to free itself from political constraints.

Today, talking about local theatre inevitably involves a discussion of protest theatre, a kind of playmaking that dominated our stages in the Eighties. Both Fugard and Simon were noted practitioners and pioneers of the genre.

But Benson refuses to pigeonhole Simon’s or Fugard’s plays simply as protest theatre. As she says, “Barney said it so beautifully, in an interview he gave in Sweden. He said we should be going into people’s lives, their souls, their ways of life. And if it brings in aspects of the struggle then that’s okay. But it’s good if it can go beyond just protesting against the horrors, and inspire people to function constructively.”

There have been many investigations into Fugard’s work (and Benson edited his journals for publication), but Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre is the first and thus far only only exploration of Simon’s theatrical accomplishments.

Those who knew Simon and worked with him in South Africa were aware of his frequent departures from the country, without knowing where exactly he went or what he did. What Simon was doing, without crowing about it, was touring his productions around the world. Benson’s book furnishes an account of his travels and a selection of critical accolades.

Simon and Fugard became major figures in world theatre, working in the world’s greatest venues with such luminaries as Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley.

Benson’s book is filled with meaty anecdotes, beyond which are deeper concerns. The protagonists battle with personal problems: there’s Fugard, always drinking in earlier times; an oddly parochial figure, considering his place in the theatre world. There’s Simon – single, suffering from a skin disease and frequently overworked. And then there’s Benson herself, exiled, arthritic, seeking love.

It is a story of enduring friendships, coupled with accomplishments that leave one in awe of the three who found each other, sometime in the Fifties, in the simple working environment of Dorkay House. But times have changed.

The ultimate question then, for Benson, tends towards the role and function of women of her generation, today.

“Some of my contemporary friends are still working in the townships, in kindergartens that they founded many years ago, while some are academics. At my age most women are retired and playing bridge,” she says wryly. “I’m just lucky, as a writer, that I still have the strength to plod on.

“Barney had such an enormous impact, giving me courage, and at certain times provoking me. As with that statement of his: `Only do dangerous things.'”

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