Because it is the 60th anniversary of the Joburg Theatre, panto praise singer Janice Honeyman was commandeered to produce the panto of all panto’s by the theatre’s CEO, Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema. She tells DIANE DE BEER about the process and production, giving her a masterclass in theatre-making:
Pictures: enroC photo & video
Adventures in Pantoland with David Arnold Johnson, Ilse Klink, Michelle Botha and Grant Towers
Speaking to Janice Honeyman about creativity is always a treat. She’s probably one of the buzziest creatives I know, always surprising with productions and shows that either blow your mind or get you thinking.
The challenge was set and she decided to respond with the biggest and the best – taking into account that she has been at it for more than 30 years, that’s no mean feat. “I’ve done many big ones but this was going to be next level!”
And her mind wandered to Into The Woods, realising there could be a panto in that. “All our favourite characters in pantos are in that production: we see Snow White and we see Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, we see Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, we see Aladdin, we see Peter Pan, we see Tinkerbell, we see Pinocchio and that’s just the goodies; and the baddies are the wicked queen from Snow White, the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, Abenazer from Aladdin, and the wicked fairy Kakkalura Kakiebos from The Sleeping Beauty.”
What she had to do was to think how to get all this stuff together. “I have, especially in the last while, been very obsessed with the lack of kindness in the world, the lack of generosity and the lack of caring for people.
“I don’t want it to sound preachy or prissy, but I was thinking we have to give kids those values, we’ve got to see that kids can have those sorts of heroes; not just the bad, hard sort of Marvel comic heroes, we need lovely people.”
“As I was conceiving all of this, bugger me if the war in Ukraine didn’t break out.”
And Putin became the follow-up villain to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. And those were three of her obsessions, because of what they were doing to the world, of populism, dictatorship, corruption and all of that.
Janice Honeyman and her panto partner Timothy le Roux in rehearsals and planning.
“That was the kind of palette I was writing from and it was quite weird when I was writing, because I kept on taking a break and turning on the TV and if it wasn’t Covid 1 or 2 or 17 it would be Ukraine and what Putin was doing and the terrible pictures of little old women being chased out of their homes.
“And bad started getting to me. I thought the world cannot go on like this. That might sound very heavy and upsetting, but it isn’t. It is a proper good versus evil story, which is always what panto has to be. But somehow good versus evil was having more reverberations and echoes than it usually does each year,” she added.
When it came to casting, because of all the headliners, she knew there would be no above the line billings. What she was aiming for was a wonderful ensemble cast. She had to have good actors who could sing and dance. It was important to have actors who would portray the characters with heart and feeling and some skill.
Talking me through the process, she explained that she always wanted to use Brenda Radloff because she’s always appreciated her as an actress and as a musical star.
She describes Brenda as the nicest person she knows but … also thought, who could be that terrible evil queen in Snow White?
“I thought, well, here’s a challenge for you girl, so I cast her and then I wrote, as I often do, according to the people I have in mind for particular roles. I remembered many years ago, she played Lady Macbeth for me. If the Evil Queen and Lady Macbeth aren’t equal to each other, then no characters are!”
Justin Swartz as Jack and David Arnold Johnson as Jack’s mother.
David Arnold Johnson gave a great audition and she’s always liked him as an actor. Ben Voss is a complete favourite of hers from the Beauty Rampelapela days (shows she directed) and he played The Wicked Queen in Snow White and one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, so he was perfect casting for Abanazer. “I knew he would get the versatility in this particular version where he has to play toadying to the Wicked Queen because they all belong to Evil Action Inc and she’s the chairperson, he has to kowtow to her but when he’s with Aladdin, he has to be towering and a bully and a horrible, horrible person. I think Ben can be that and more!”
She’s also worked with Ilse Klink before and adores her because she’s a wonderful warm, giving actress and thus perfect for Kakkalura Kakiebos.
The good guys gang have to win the golden goblet of goodness. They include musical star Carmen Pretorius, Dylan du Plessis “who is really a lovely new discovery, charming, you can’t believe; Justin Swartz, Didintle Khunou who starred in The Colour Purple and I thought well here’s a lovely challenge for her, something different; and then the ensemble can all sing and dance and act very well. They’ve got that young injection which I always like, so its all about the whole spectrum,” she notes.
“Panto has got songs and dances and colour and sets and all the rest of it, but if the story doesn’t talk to your heart, it doesn’t work.
“So, at the beginning, I find the elements that mean a lot to me, I also without fail read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment about the particular pantos or fairy stories I’m doing just to give me that kind of deeper insight into the work. It hardly ever shows on stage except that with that foundation and working from that point, you can explain it to actors and they understand the psychology of the characters.”
The toughest after all these many years is arguably to always find a new angle to tell the story, something different, something to make people sit up and lean forward. She always sits at the back of an auditorium to watch the movement of an audience, how they lean forward… and some more … and again. And then they sit still and they watch.
“It’s very important to create a story that will captivate them,” she explains. “Most young people’s stories, especially fairy tales, involve quests. This one is that the goblet of goodness is stolen by the bad guys and the good guys have to find it and bring it back.”
There’s just a whole lot of stuff that she gathers throughout the year. “It’s all about finding the topical and South African references and then jigsaw puzzling the whole thing together so that it forms a complete picture for an audience to enjoy, from beginning to end.”
Janice thinks about the total spectacle by indulging completely. “What is every single thing I want to see on stage this year?” And in it goes.
She is 73, and she still loves the end of the year joke. “I’ve done very serious stuff throughout 2022, so its lovely to be absolutely stupid, silly, rude, naughty and full of fun!”
And that she does better than anyone I know!