BWW Interview: Five on Friday with SUDDENLY THE STORM's Charmaine Weir-Smith
Audiences in the Mother City, where SUDDENLY THE STORM is currently running at the Baxter Theatre's Flipside venue, may recognise Charmaine Weir-Smith from her two-year stint on BINNELANDERS or as Yvette Holmes in ISIDINGO, but this award-winning actress, writer and director has tread the boards in many a production. She has played roles like Ophelia in HAMLET (to Vita Award-winning effect), the title role in AGNES OF GOD and Rachel in AN UNROMANTIC COMEDY. Weir-Smith has also been at the helm of productions such as ANNIE, BIG BAND BLAST and CAPTAIN ENTERTAINMENT - all of which won awards either at the Vitas or the Naledis - as well as THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIDE, TWITCH and FREAK COUNTRY, the last of which was written by Paul Slabolepszy, with whom she is reunited in SUDDENLY THE STORM. She plays Shanell, the wife of Slabolepszy's Dwayne, forming with him an archetypal white South African working-class couple. Their troubled marriage is pushed to the limits when Dwayne's childhood friend and work partner, Jonas, dies and a young woman, Namhla, arrives at their home with questions that demand to be answered.
David Fick: SUDDENLY THE STORM has had remarkable success, winning three Naledi Awards including one for Best New South African Script. What do you think has made this piece resonate with South Africans so strongly at this time?
Charmaine Weir-Smith: SUDDENLY THE STORM is intrinsically South African, but also so universal. The themes that Paul has dealt with in his writing are rich, complex themes that resonate throughout humanity. Yes, the context is South African and the world of Dwayne and Shanell is so East Rand, Johannesburg, the themes of love, betrayal and identity are universal. At its core, the piece is about flawed humanity. The comedy and pathos of this, make the show very appealing.
DF: There are so many jokes about the differences between people in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively. Having played a successful season at the Market before transferring to the Baxter, do you sense any differences in the audience from the stage or in responses you've had to the show?
CWS: No difference at all. I'm happy to report that every night audiences give us a standing ovation. Such a warm response. The writing resonates with audiences everywhere.
DF: It's often hard to single out a career highlight - but I'm going to ask you to try! So - has there been a key moment in your career that defined who you are in the theatre industry?
CWS: That is a hard question because as an actress you are constantly evolving and re-inventing yourself, not wanting to be "stuck" or seen as playing a particular type of character. I suppose, my breakthrough role as Ophelia in HAMLET at The Natal Playhouse was an important step in showing producers and directors that I could tackle a bigger, more challenging role. Playing Ophelia opened many doors for me. Playing Shanell in SUDDENLY THE STORM has been a career highlight for me.
DF: What do you think the biggest challenge facing South African theatre is at present?
CWS: Lack of funding and support for smaller projects. There are so many amazing community-based theatre projects with phenomenal actors who just don't have the funding to grow their products. Also, there should be money spent on audience development. We have to grow our audiences in South Africa. A woman in her fifties came to SUDDENLY THE STORM last week and told us this was the first theatre show she had ever been to. Theatre should be part of South African's everyday life, like TV.
DF: In South Africa at this time, we have a huge mix of theatre legends and inspiring new artists. Who is your South African theatre hero?
CWS: Anybody who is a theatre practitioner, who is passionate about theatre and is creating fresh stories - those are my heroes. And, I've always wanted to work with Paul Slab and now that I am, this experience is everything that I hoped it would be.
SUDDENLY THE STORM runs at the Baxter Flipside until 8 July at 19:30 nightly, with matinee performances on 24 June, 1 and 8 July at 14:00. Tickets range in price from R130 - R160 and can be booked online through Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000, or in person at any Shoprite or Checkers outlet. The show carries an age restriction of 16 years.