By Peter Tromp
In this regular feature, we go deep into the minds of some of our finest actors.
Ralph Lawson’s career spans four decades, with landmark roles ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Mozart in Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ and the Narrator in Sondheim’s musical ‘Into The Woods’.
One of our most recognisable thespians will shortly be back on the planks in Cape Town in the universally lauded ‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’, running at The Fugard Theatre Studio for a short season from June 7 to 25.
Written by Lawson and Greg Homann, ‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’ is an empathetic personal examination of life as portrayed through Alan Paton’s own words, stories, poems and autobiographies. It highlights the invaluable contribution made by the author of ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ who was, in the words of Douglas Livingstone, a “lighthouse in the South African twilight” during the dark decades leading up to the country’s constitutional democracy.
Capetonians can now finally catch up with Johannesburg and Durban and see for themselves why the production caused such a stir in those cities and walked away with three Naledi awards in April.
You’ve had an illustrious and long career. What are some highlights that spring immediately to mind?
It’s the lowlights that seem to inhabit one’s subconscious and raise their ugly heads more often than the highlights. Unfortunately, I’m a perfectionist; and in a job where one is dealing with so many variables and in essence ‘sculpting in snow’ (I love that definition of acting), this can be quite demoralising. Of course, when the work is successful and resonates with audiences, it’s a wonderful thing. It often happens when one least expects it and for reasons that defy logic, but it’s grand when it does. Interestingly, it’s happened once or twice when I’ve stuck my neck out and taken a chance and undertaken something that isn’t merely a safe bet – when I was asked to play Prof. Higgins, for example, in ‘My Fair Lady’ for the first time I thought that they might live to regret it. But the role became a catalyst for something in me that I wasn’t aware of until then. The audience really bought into it. And I went on to play it in three different productions. That was a highlight. And I have to say that ‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’ has been the same. The response of audiences of all ages and backgrounds has been terrific and beyond any expectation. Very heartening.
What has kept you going all this time? What is your inspiration/muse?
I think I’m a fairly regular oke, really. I like braais and bacon and eggs with good coffee and the newspapers on Sunday mornings and I place a good deal of value on my home life and the close friends I have, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the theatre. Of course, I love the theatre and the people who inhabit it and I revel in all aspects of it and consider myself very lucky that I’m able to be fully engaged in acting, directing, writing or teaching young aspiring artists. I find the latter particularly inspiring for the positive responses it elicits in our changing society. Like Alan Paton, I love nature, which can sometimes, in his words, ‘fill me with an emotion beyond describing’; and Mozart, too. But in the final analysis it’s my colleagues who are the greatest inspiration to me.
Tell us a little about your acting training – formal and informal – and what you discovered about yourself and your craft.
I was fortunate to be able to train as an actor in London, where I went to the Central School after a stint at UCT. The emphasis at Central was on practical, classical training. But, naturally, no amount of training is much good without a great deal of real experience and I was lucky enough to be exposed to this. It’s much harder for young actors these days to get the essential opportunities to apply what they’ve learnt and to learn the finer points of their craft from seasoned professionals. Many of the skills involved are handed down and can’t be found in text books. At present I’m engaged in forming a small company in KZN which will endeavour to bridge the gap between tertiary education and the industry at large by providing ongoing training and work opportunities. And I’ve learn that it takes a lifetime to begin to master the required skill and technique and that there’s always something new to discover about oneself and the contribution one can make.
‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’ made waves in Joburg and Durban, and it’s about to land in to Cape Town. What can audiences look forward to with the show?
The play is fairly unusual in that much of the dialogue was created out of the protagonist’s (Alan Paton’s) own words, which in turn suggested its dramatic content. The result has been a very ‘character driven’ piece that portrays the inner lives of the characters as much as what they stood for. We were at pains to avoid a mere tribute to a great writer and tried to give an accurate rendering of the man: his inner conflicts (the essence of drama), his quirks and what really motivated him. His sheer genius with words underpins it all at the same time, which makes it economical, easy on the ear and often very moving. It’s been most gratifying to hear from members of the audience that the play seems also to say something about where we are now in South Africa. But politics are very much in the background and it’s really a human story with what has been obvious since we opened at the National Arts Festival last year, namely a gratifyingly broad appeal.
You won the “Best Lead Performance In A Play” and “Best New Sa Script” for ‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’ at the recent Naledi Awards. How did that recognition feel? And do/should awards matter to an actor?
There’s no doubt about it, it feels great! I think that self-doubt is part and parcel of the make-up of any actor; it’s what spurs us on and, in many ways, keeps us going. So when one is awarded recognition for a piece of work it’s a real panacea. So, yes, I think awards are important, as long as the self-doubt remains somewhere at the back of your mind and you don’t let them go to your head. Awards also have an important function in that they bring a play or a performance to the attention of potential audiences.
Are there any roles in your career you’d like to have another shot at; that you feel you might be better equipped to inhabit now?
I feel that, after all this time, I’m finally beginning to master some of the intangibles of my profession, like technique, for instance. Of course, with the march of time certain aspects of acting become easier, but others, in turn, become more difficult. It’s no good having learnt to pick up cues quickly if you can’t hear them properly anymore. And what good is fine articulation if your teeth are falling out? Joking aside, I’d like to have a shot at (King) Lear, perhaps, while my hard-learned technique can still serve me before my stamina finally conks out.
“Last night a show changed my life.” Which show?
It’s probably the less good ones that made me think I could conceivably have done better that might have changed my life!
Finally, three words you feel describe you best as an actor…
Patient (with others, not myself); eager (to absorb new experiences); lazy (unfortunately).
* Bookings can be made at Computicket, or the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554.