A living South African theatre legend, Janice Honeyman has over 50 years experience in the theatre industry and is the unofficial queen of South African pantomime with even the Huffington Post admitting “A panto without Janice Honeyman is unthinkable.” We sat down with the acclaimed theatre director to find out more about her career so far and what's in store for the upcoming theatre season.
One of South African theatre's most celebrated directors, the theatre world almost missed Honeyman as she had once harboured dreams of being a vet but “I was hopeless at science” she admits with a laugh. “I slipped into drama without really intending to...I didn’t know what else to do in university” she says of her decision to study drama at the University of Cape Town. It was a perfect fit and years later Honeyman’s love for theatre hasn’t waned. “It doesn’t seem like a job. It seems like playing around, although it’s hard work, it’s good hard playing.”
While in drama school, she got involved in as many productions as possible, “I got a kind of overall knowledge of it” working as everything from a prompter and dresser to handling props and sound. Her first production was a children’s play she wrote while in university, named the Cape Parade Adventure. Commissioned for a Theatre for Youth tour, the play was written in a day after much procrastination on Honeyman’s part and only because her mother had decreed she would not be able to go to Grahamstown ahead of the festival without writing it. “I lay down on my tummy with a scribbler and a pencil. And I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote a children’s play in a day!” She handed in the script in its original pencil format, and it was during the production of the play that she fell in love with directing.
Fast forward to 2018 and Honeyman is now one of the most respected names in the industry, producing hit after hit including a blockbuster production of The Color Purple which premiered at the Joburg Theatre in February 2018 and which returns to the theatre this August.
Honeyman first read The Color Purple when it was published in 1982. “I read The Color Purple and it was kind of a fad. Everybody at university or in the kind of intellectual circles had been reading The Color Purple. And I read it as well, and through and then through again and loved it.” Understandably excited that she has been given the chance to create her own rendition, she explains that the South African production "is an entirely new, entirely original production. It doesn’t resemble the Broadway production at all.”
Particularly relevant in a time when women the world over have begun to stand up and say #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, Honeyman’s production clearly highlights The Color Purple’s themes of bravery, self-determination and female solidarity with its triumphant debut run earlier this year seeing audiences on their feet, punching their fists in the air and hollering “yasss girl!” as the abused and downtrodden Celie reclaims her life from the abusive men around her.
Come November Honeyman will be back at the Joburg Theatre again with another production, her annual pantomime which has become a trademark of the Joburg festive season. This year she is bringing back Snow White, her first-ever pantomime, for the first time in 31 years. An avid fan of classic fairy tales, Honeyman admits “I like the girl fairy stories better than the boy ones. They’re more romantic, they’re prettier.” This run of Snow White stars actor, comedian and South African household name Desmond Dube, returning for his fifth Honeyman pantomime, as Dame Dolla Diddledaddledoodledragon and former 702 talk host and rugby player John Robbie makes his panto debut as The Major-Dumb-Ou of the Royal Palace of Cool Cornucopia.
And what is it that she loves so much about pantomimes? “You know a pantomime is like a Christmas gift. A box of all the things that you really love in one packet. And you open the packet and you give the audience those brightly coloured, beautifully wrapped, sweet, lovely presents.”