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It’s typical Sandra Prinsloo humility that when she was first contacted about the president’s national orders and told she might be receiving one, she didn’t think it would really happen.
Prinsloo, who was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) for her contribution to the arts as well as her stance against apartheid, was deeply honoured to be noticed.
One of her most controversial roles was playing opposite John Kani in 1985 at The Market in Miss Julie. “I was a white woman seducing a black man,” she recalls vividly.
At the time, this Afrikaans stage darling’s action would have been viewed as especially provocative. Most of the threats were hidden from her, and while she first read all the vitriol sent her way, she was shocked by the viciousness of the response.
“They tried to protect me from the worst,” she says, but when she found director Bobby Heaney scratching around below stage one night before a performance and asked what he was doing, he told her he was looking for bombs.
Today all of that sounds outrageous, and those who lived through those times might have forgotten about the absurdities, but for the recipients, every action was extremely real.
That’s why Sandra is so insistent that people should be talking to one another. “If you consider a person, you can never be racist,” she urges.
It’s also why revisiting those dark times are so important, lest we forget. “I want to go back and view the archival material that I wasn’t shown at the time,” she says. “We can never go there again.”
But she recalls with fondness working with Kani as well as those early days of the Market Theatre with Barney Simon and a director to whom she was very close, Lucille Gillwald.
“I had of course worked with black actors before but never in such intimate circumstances, and that was memorable,” she recalls of this time when the two actors would have been in trouble for sitting together in the front seat of a car.
Coming from a time when these extreme behaviours weren’t even remarked on, any gestures of defiance from the white community were harshly dealt with.
And for black people it was the daily reality of their lives.
“It was two very different worlds coming together,” she says about their rehearsals.
But Sandra has always used her humanity well and probably slipped through the brouhaha without too much fuss.
And in similar fashion, she is tackling the life and times of an older actor with cunning and class.
“I have been blessed,” she says, dismissing any hint that this might be any of her own doing.
“She has four productions in her head at one time,” says fellow actor Tobie Cronje when I speak to him later. “I don’t know how she does it.”
Hard work, one suspects, but also Prinsloo’s passion for theatre. When I caught up with her and Marius Weyers at the Klein Karoo National Arts festival, where they were performing together for the first time since 1986, this stage couple from the late ’60s (through the ’70s and ’80s) had finished the two-hander Vir Ewig en Altyd which she had first spotted as a possibility for her and Marius, translated and directed by Hennie van Greunen. But that was just the first few days of the 20th festival. Now she was preparing for the second half of the KKNK with sometimes two shows a day of Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf?, a tour de force also with Marius and directed by wunderkind Christiaan Olwagen, as well as her long-running solo show Die Naaimasjien.
In the end, it was fine and she enjoyed the work, but many much younger actors are left breathless.
“It is the best time,” she says of this stage of her life. “Who knew that there were so many parts for older actresses?” Even though she and Marius captured world attention with The Gods Must Be Crazy and back home they packed halls with Siener in die Suburbs and Vasvat van ’n Feeks, there was a time when Sandra slipped backstage and worked mainly in industrial theatre, partly because she needed some time out but also because of a paucity of parts.
“We need to do that as actors, but it’s a tough one,” she says.
She doesn’t live in the past, though, and is thrilled to be working with new directors and young talent that exhilarates her. Much of the work, she says, comes to her.
“It’s not that I’m out there looking.”
She’s loving the rematch with her old chum Weyers and compares their coming together “as a dance”.
“We know each other so well, we could simply slide into those old rhythms.”
There seems to be a shift in the theatre landscape and more plays are touring the country rather than sticking to particular provinces. Hopefully, even those with bigger casts, like Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf? will also travel the country.
Don’t miss any of her performances. From Virginia, in which she and Marius romp raucously across the stage, to the tearjerker Oskar en die Pienk Tannie (she’s still trying to get the rights for an English translation) to Sewing Machine as well as the latest Vir Ewig en Altyd, she simply takes your breath away.
And the country acknowledged that on Sunday.