From 8% in math to a life on the stage and awards

From 8% in math to a life on the stage and awards

PETER TROMP spoke to multiple award winning actress ANTHEA THOMPSON, one of Cape Town’s best, about her new play, Fred Abrahamse’s production of ‘Kingdom of Earth’, the rarely-seen masterpiece by legendary American playwright Tennessee Williams. The play is currently showing at the Artscape Arena.

What ignited your love of the arts, and how did you pursue a career in the entertainment biz subsequently?
My grandmother, Molly Thompson, came out during the war as a single mother and established herself as an actress and as a writer of radio dramas. I remember listening to Springbok radio and hearing a little girl’s voice and my father telling me it was my Grandmother.
I was captivated by the idea that a woman of 50-odd could sound like a six year old. It awakened in me the idea of transformation. I had a fairly disastrous first stab at performing when I was seven, when I was cast as a little girl called Blossom who went to visit her Uncle at Kirstenbosch Gardens. (It was a programme about the Gardens.) Ben Decker (who played my Uncle) was a willowy, full and scruffy bearded man of well over six foot.
I took one look at him and promptly threw a wailing hissy fit. They had to stop filming until my mother arrived and fell on Ben like a long lost friend. And that clinched it for me. Ingenious no? Also, having ADD, a vivid imagination and getting 8% for Maths encouraged my parents to guide me into more creative endeavours. I finally landed up at UCT doing a Performers Diploma in Speech and Drama and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tell us about ‘Kingdom of Earth’. What can audiences look forward to with the production?
It’s set in rural Mississipi in 1960. You will meet Chicken (played by Marcel Meyer); half brother to Lot, who is a dark, brooding, monosyllabic young man who is plagued with lustful thoughts and been cast out of society. He runs a rundown farm in the Mississippi Delta. Myrtle (Thompson); an older, amiably loud-voiced, rather fleshy woman who tries to imitate a Hollywood glamour girl – unsuccessfully and Lot (Nicholas Dallas); a frail, delicate, exotically pretty young man. Lot has married the older Myrtle in the hopes of wrenching the farm away from Chicken. They arrive at the farmhouse when the whole area is under threat of a massive flood. It’s a story of survival and has moments of extraordinary pathos and beautiful, cruel humour. Fireworks, people, fireworks!

You guys had great reviews in the States. What did it feel like as South Africans to be so warmly embraced by the US critical establishment?
Everybody that we met was extraordinarily gracious and abundantly supportive. A friend of mine did remark before I left that this project was a bit like taking coals to Newcastle and I must admit to having a moment of sheer panic. But after travelling for 24 hours to get to Provincetown, I was just itching to tell this Tennessee Williams story. When we got such an effusive response, I did wonder whether we were being slightly patronised, simply because I’ve never experienced that kind of feedback, but I’m beginning to think that as South African artists we could all be a bit more supportive of one another.

You delivered (in my opinion) one of the best performances of the year in Mike Van Graan’s ‘Green Man Flashing’. How do you feel about the performances of yours that become lauded, or decorated? I guess what I’m trying to ask, in a roundabout way, is do you ever feel, “I really nailed it with that one?”
Thanks Peter. I doubt that I’ll ever have that “I’ve nailed it” feeling. I don’t think a performance of a text can ever really be fully realised. Every time I’ve been involved with a play that tours and has life after its initial run, I find another layer, another nuance, something I missed the last time. As the performers mature into their performances, the play grows. That’s the joy of live performance and working together. I’m also my harshest critic.

It would appear quite brave of the creative team of Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer to stage a serious play during the festive season. Why should audiences come and see your show instead of, or in addition to the usually festive productions that are on at the moment?
I don’t think it’s overtly serious – that’s the joy of this play, it’s beautifully balanced between pathos and comedy.

What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about you?
I have asthma and I smoke, I read ‘Harry Potter’ to fall asleep and I feel my life is a series of acute embarrassments.

Complete the following: Favourite movie; book; music album; song; midnight snack; holiday destination; lunch spot.
Movie: ‘Festen’. Book: ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Music album: Any Tom Jones or Tricky. Song: ‘Faith’ by George Michael. Midnight snack: I’ve been known to make a full meal of chips, peas and a fillet – I’m not a firm believer of snacks. Holiday destination: Arniston/Waenhuiskranz. Lunch spot: Anywhere I can get a good piece of meat. Oh, and braais rule.

* ‘Kingdom of Earth’ will show until December 30 at 8.15pm nightly. Book at Computicket.