Since its start at the Market Theatre in 2010 through a succesful run at the National Arts Festival, Death of a Colonialist has received criticial acclaim, awards and plaudits for not only Greg Latter’s script, but also Jamie Barlett’s performance. Director Craig Freimond has worked on the drama since the beginning, when Latter first presented him with the draft.
The main character is a school teacher who is a bit out of control, unorthodox, passionate about his subject and very challenging, the kind of teacher we should all be so lucky to meet at least once.
Joburg-born Freimond remembers that the maverick school teacher he encountered was the one who encouraged him to study drama. While he did initially start off as an actor in the ’90s, he quickly moved behind the camera and as a director he now straddles the world of film and theatre.
Freimond relishes the same thing about both – discovering the story – though this happens in different ways in the two media.
“We do the same thing, actually. The script only lives when it is spoken by actors,” he says, referring to both.
Yet, for theatre the discovery of that story lies in the rehearsal process, while on film, it can sometimes happen in the editing suite.
“You have to be very clever when you shoot so you don’t always shoot the same thing,” speaks of the experience of working on films such as Gums and Noses, Material and Jozi.
The slower process of theatre rehearsals is how Freimond learnt to work on films, but first and foremost he thinks of himself as performance director: “I’m about the actor because that’s my training.”
Working with Bartlett on this play in rehearsals was the fun part of the process because that was the “panelbeating” point when they shaped the work and figured out the rhythm.
What started as a one-act play developed into two acts with a break, because they realised Bartlett needed time to get out of the red ochre he covers himself in at the beginning.
Bartlett actually plays a character much older than himself, a history teacher named Harold Smith, passionate about the history of the Xhosa. His increasingly erratic teaching techniques are making the school’s hierarchy look for a new teacher and Smith is also unaware that his wife has terminal cancer.
A family visit by his two children makes for an uncon- ventional family reunion and the play deals with questions of identity, history and cancer in a funny, but sad way. Ultimately it re-inforces what it means to be South African as the play weaves between the tragedy of our past and the challenges of our present.
Freimond describes Bartlett as a very unique actor, ascribing his succesful television career (Freimond writes for e.tv’s Rhythm City) to the actor’s ability to find a moment or quirk that is appropriate to the character: “It’s very human.
“He makes a lot of big offers… slightly outrageous offers and you spend a lot of time going: ‘No, that’s slightly ridiculous’, but often those slightly off the wall offers take root in another form and end up creating something quite unusual.
“He’ll be sitting doing this,” says Freimond, leaning over and frantically scratching his leg.
“And you sort of think ‘that is just… I don’t know what that is’.
“But it is unique and he’s constantly doing that in rehearsal, and to a certain degree in the performance.
“He’s one of those actors who is able to take his eccentricities with him, into very different characters. So, he can play a baddie, or a mean guy, but he’ll find enormous humour or quirk in that guy, so that the audience actually loves him.
“He’s done that succesfully both in Rhythm City and Isidingo, where both the characters were the baddies, but they end up being the most popular characters because he brings a lot of laughter.”
• Death of a Colonialist is on at the Golden Arrow Theatre at the Baxter from tomorrow to March 1. Show times: 8.15pm. Tickets cost R100 to R140 at Computicket.