JAIMIE BARTLETT has in the last almost 20 years become one of the most recognisable actors in South Africa. PETER TROMP chatted to the busy performer on the eve of his return to the Cape Town stage in ‘Death Of A Colonialist’, which will be showing at the Baxter Theatre until March 1.
What initially drew you to the arts, and how did you go about carving out a career as an actor?
It wasn’t a choice – it was a way of climbing out of the bullring of rugby and the droning parameters of schools. Everything in life is about practise, so the more I practised the more I learned. In the words of Alexander Pope, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.”
What are a few of your own personal highlights in your career?
Being on stage with my son Hector at his junior school leavers play with his beautiful mother. Taking off my clothes and going naked in ‘Cock and Bull Story’ in 1986 and hearing the morally clad audience unleash their diaphragms. Walking on to a 900 million rand set movie with a James Bond director and Angelia Jolie, wilted by the might of Hollywood.
‘Death Of A Colonialist’ arrives in Cape Town in the wake of major awards success and critical buzz in Gauteng. Cutting through the hype though, what can locals look forward to with the production?
A taut tale, articulate in the tell, provoked by the emotion, sore by the laughs, left with the questions.
What were your initial reactions when you sat down to read Greg Latter’s script for the first time?
I was very moved that my friend and director Craig was thinking about me, aged 43, to play this 65 year old drunk-with-life man, Harold Smith, and what the reach beyond my grasp at filling his shoes would mean, and the need, and the will, to have the play told.
Tell us about your character Harold Smith. How did you go about trying to get into his head?
The essential and first point of character is everything you learn from the text and the dissection of it, especially in a play so beautifully woven as this. From those small crystals, you work outward into gestures, into sounds, into the things that end up being character.
Did your process of trying to realise him differ at all from how you usually go about inhabiting characters you play?
Only that you are helped much more in this play by its brilliance in the way that Greg has painted so deftly the characters and the story.
Tell us a little about your co-stars; a little something-something about each and every one of them, if you’d be so kind.
Shirley Johnston, who plays my wife Maggie, is the mother and the centre of the pain of the play, to which Shirley brings her unique blend of experience in life and in work; Ashleigh Harvey, who plays my pint-sized power daughter, brings her front-foot surefootedness to painting Susan. This is the first time on the boards with Nicholas Pauling, and he’s possibly the best son I’ve ever had.
Describe those initial, first moments when you get together with a new ensemble and you realise you’re going to be going on a crazy journey with these folks.
Just a giggle because you know where you are going to go.
We don’t get to see you on stage in Cape Town that often. What’s it like for you when you are down in the Mother City to perform for us lot?
Cape Town is my home and will always have that umbilical resonance. Coming back to this harbour with this play is very sexy for me.
You seem to be busy yourself primarily with TV and film projects. What appeal does the stage hold for you?
The stage was essential to my training and allows you to breathe into the character the demands of play acting in a way that television and film don’t – in a live way, in that moment way, and in that it needs-to-be-repeated way, which makes it most unique.
You played one of the most legendary characters in all of SA pop culture when you were on ‘Isidingo’. Is there any harm for an actor in playing such an iconic character as Mike O’Reilly?
David Genaro (from ‘Rhythm City’) is a more iconic character, notwithstanding that he plays in 22 African countries everyday and emotionally has more latitude than Mike, largely due to better plot and writing. Mike O’Reilly and ‘Isidingo’ of that time, in 1997, were groundbreaking in their story choice, laying down challenging questions in a very young democracy, in a way never asked before.
So yes, those kinds of characters are indelibly seared into the minds of audiences of 97, 98 and 99.
Complete the following: Favourite movie; book; holiday destination; lunch spot; Cape Town haunt.
Favourite movie – ‘The Field’ with Richard Harris and Sean Bean, and anything that Gary Oldman performs in; Book – ‘The Ode To English’ by Stephen Fry; Holiday Destination – anywhere on my own continent. In the last year I’ve been to Ghana, Uganda and Ethiopia; Lunch Spot & Cape Town haunt – Babel at Babylonstoren.
* Book at Computicket.