No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.


Yaël Farber: three plays in a new collection

Ingrid Rowland is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome and The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery. In her introduction to Yaël Farber Plays One which includes Molora, RAM: The Abduction of Sita into Darkness and Mies Julie Rowland describes how Farber has taken on classical drama texts, made them her own, and even arguably improved them in some ways for modern audiences. Rowland believes that “rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities”

9781783191512Yaël Farber has described her involvement with theatre as a mission. At the heart of her productions, therefore, no matter how dark, there is always a luminous vision to guide characters, actors, and audience forward from the magical rite of performance into a transformed awareness of normal life. Paradoxically, as in these three plays, she draws power from traditional stories and traditional rituals to address contemporary problems head on. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who hid away the most graphic events of tragedy – murder, suicide, rape – Farber shows it all. As a director, she drives the human body to extremes, asking incredible agility of her dancing, leaping, whirling, wrestling actors, pressing their willingness to bare body and soul to the very limits of endurance. She makes comparable demands of her public: we are present to bear witness, to be engaged rather than simply entertained. Each of these plays begins with a warning that production on a proscenium stage will ruin its effect; players and public must meet face to face, on the same level, to recognize their common humanity – and, sadly, inhumanity.

Furthermore, each of these three dramas is based on a classic of dramatic or epic literature transported to a new place and time. Molora (2008) sets the ancient Greek saga of the Oresteia in contemporary South Africa, with the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation taking the role of the ancient Athenian Court of the Areopagus. Ram: the Abduction of Sita into Darkness (2011) recounts a grim episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana in connection with a strike by modern Indian sanitation workers. Mies Julie (2012) moves August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie from the midnight sun of a Swedish Midsummer to Freedom Day on an arid South African farmstead. And with each of these transpositions, something remarkable takes place. Rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities. For these great tales, times and continents hardly matter; our similarities as human beings prove stronger than our differences, especially when we gather in a circle to hear a story unfold.

Ingrid Rowland

Ingrid Rowland

At its origin, the Oresteia was a tale of the dying Mediterranean Bronze Age. Agamemnon, the general who led a thousand Greek ships to conquer distant Troy, belonged to the last generation to rule from a series of massive palaces decorated with elaborate frescoes and brimming with gold. Shortly after the Trojan War, between about 1200 and 1100 B.C.E., this palace civilization was destroyed; political systems broke down, writing was lost, Greeks descended into extreme poverty. Memories of that breakdown persist in the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming from Troy: his queen, Clytemnestra, has taken a lover during his ten-year absence, and when he finally returns, she kills her husband and abandons their children. Electra, the daughter, descends into bitterness. Their son, Orestes, is bound by tradition to avenge his father’s death by slaying the murderer, but that murderer is his own mother. His conflicting obligations potentially make Orestes a monster no matter what he does; significantly, his name means ‘mountain man’ – he is, by fate and by definition, a kind of savage. All three of the great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, wrestled with Orestes’ dilemma, using it as a way to call for new, more profound forms of justice, aware that their ancestors had created a new civilization, their own, from the ruins of the Bronze Age. In their retellings, Orestes slays his mother, but is tormented by the Furies, his mother’s avenging spirits. In his great tragic trilogy. Aeschylus finally turns Orestes over to a court of law, which reaches a split decision. In a spectacular finish, Athena decides to acquit him, but she also gives the Furies a new home and a new cult in Athens.

Yaël Farber

Yaël Farber

In Molora, the dying Bronze Age becomes the dying system of South African apartheid. Farber replaces the ancient Greek chorus with a chorus of Xhosa women singers. Those ancient Athenians sang melodies and danced, vigorously, in patterns we can only guess at now. But the hypnotic two-tone throat singing of this contemporary chorus creates an ecstatic atmosphere sufficient in itself, one in perfect harmony with the play and with its new South African venue. Aeschylus ended his famous Orestes trilogy of 458 B.C. with a torchlight procession as dusk fell over Athens, knitting up all the unanswered questions of his story with the irrational, energetic rush of pure celebration. The final chorus of Molora may be sung in a different language to different instruments than those known to Aeschylus, but the language of bodies in motion knows no borders, and the effect of this South African dance must be no less exhilarating than the memory of that long-ago torchlight parade. Likewise, the sword dance that Orestes performs in Molora as he circles around a smoldering altar hews with absolute truth to the spirit of Greek tragedy, not only because tragedy is the stylized product of an ancient circle dance around a burnt sacrifice, but because, in human terms, Orestes needs to work himself into a frenzy before he can contemplate doing what he must do with that sword – namely drive it into his mother. But Farber’s most brilliant transformation of the Orestes legend is to have the chorus, as the embodiment of Truth and Reconciliation, stop the murder before it has happened, to hold Orestes to their superior, forgiving justice before he awakens the Furies.

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Two South African sagas heading to Edinburgh

9781849435079The talk of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe was Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s intense, post-apartheid rendering and relocation of Strindberg’s classic, which won a Fringe First and near-unanimous five-star notices. This year there are two new South African contenders for the critical crown.

Not least is Lara Foot Newton’s Solomon and Marion, in which an unlikely friendship blossoms against a backdrop of grief, loneliness and cultural divide. It was written for Dame Janet Suzman, who recently spoke to the Guardian about the 2006 killing of actor and former colleague Brett Goldin, an incident that informs the play’s premise. Solomon and Marion has already won the Fleur Du Cap Award for Best New South African Play and will play at Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall in August

9781783190454The newcomer is Omphile Molusi, a South African writer, actor and director, whose new play Cadre – a powerful blend of autobiography, oral history and political commentary will have its British premier at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Molusi is a former Fringe First winner for his play Itsoseng (2008) and his work evokes the spirit of Athol Fugard, who’s pioneering political theatre gave a voice to the oppressed in South Africa. Cadre is co-produced by The Market Theatre of Johannesburg, who are synonymous with the work of Fugard, as well as the aforementioned Yael Farber.

Here Molusi tells the story of how he was driven to create Cadre. 

The story of Cadre was inspired by my uncle’s life. I was on a journey of searching for my family tree when I unexpectedly came across his story. Not knowing my family very well made me feel as if I was living with a group of strangers at home. Hearing my uncle’s story made me realise that I was lost in my own home – ‘lost’ in the sense of not knowing my own people and being unable to connect with them. It is difficult for one to care if one can’t connect. That was my biggest fear. I began to understand a Siberian proverb I once came across: ‘If you don’t know the trees, you may get lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories, you may get lost in life.’ This is when I began to write Cadre. I felt it was a story worthy to be told because it was not only my story, but our story.

The story of Cadre bounces back and forth between the present and the past because I believe history is very much a part of our present. History is not only timeless, it is also valuable. It is worth preserving for we are our own history. The universal truth is that we preserve things that we care about, things that we hold dearly in our hearts. If we do not care about our history, then, even if we are not aware, part of us does not care about ourselves. Countries are what they are because of their history.

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