Leila Henriques as Florence. Picture: Greg Homann

Entering the last few days of its run at the Market Theatre is the production telling the tale of Lady Phillips’s life.

Simply titled Florence, the one-person play directed by Greg Homann and penned by playwright Myer Taub is a production that experiments with time, place, language and form to re-imagine the life of colonial figure lady Florence Phillips, through a contemporary lens.

In the play, a disgruntled actress (Leila Henriques) meets with a playwright to discuss the work he’s penned that places Florence Phillips as a ghost at the Joubert Park fence outside the Johannesburg Art Gallery. 

While considering whether she will play the role, the actress imagines what it would mean to portray a dead white colonial figure today whose legacy and value is both contested and being forgotten.

Dorothea Sarah Florence Alexandra Lady Phillips (née Ortlepp; June 14, 1863- August 23, 1940) was a South African art patroness and promoter of indigenous culture. She was married to Sir Lionel Phillips, 1st Baronet, a mining magnate and politician and was most commonly known as Florence, her middle name.

She started acquiring paintings with a view to eventually founding an art gallery which after many difficulties took shape as the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

She played a leading role in projects aimed at cultivating and preserving the local artistic heritage. She headed a movement to preserve and restore the Koopmans-De Wet House in Cape Town and was an enthusiastic collector of Africana furniture, both for her own home and public institutions. 

She was instrumental, with Professor GE Pearse, in establishing a Faculty of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. Florence devoted her time to encouraging the preservation of national heritage culture and artefacts.

Chatting to Homann, one of the things that intrigue me primarily is why he was willing to get involved in a project of this sort. His answer is a rather genuine one, the exciting prospect of being the first director of a new play.

“The opportunity excited me, so when James Ngcobo (artistic director of the Market Theatre) approached me about this play in April, I was immediately interested. I then read the play and thought: ‘Wow, this is something challenging, different, fresh, and entirely bold in terms of style, form and content’.

“This kind of play is something that doesn’t come along very often, and is, in my opinion, something we need more of if we are going to grow and strengthen our theatre industry - the work is on the edge of experimental theatre which we are sadly not confronted with very much in Johannesburg.

Leila Henriques as Florence. Picture: Greg Homann

The story of Florence Phillips, and in particular how her story intersects with Johannesburg history, was also fascinating to me,” he said.

Another appealing factor was the opportunity to work with talented actress, mentor and director Henriques, which Homann has described as one of the real joys of his theatre-making career.

“I can honestly say that working with Henriques has been one of the real joys of my theatre-making career. We both share an interest and love for using humour as a way into the world of a play, so this shared connection has made our rehearsals and the production beautifully playful,” he said.

One of the glaring controversies about a piece of work of this nature, is it’s subject. Lady Phillips, for all her contribution in the arts, remains a colonial figure, and at a time when the public discourse is one of decoloniality it begs the question: Do stories like this still have a place on our theatre stages? Homann believes they do. But for reasons other than placing Lady Phillips on a pedestal.

“Myer Taub’s play is not in any way trying to put a colonial figure like Florence Phillips on a pedestal. This is not a work that is intended to celebrate her life, but rather it’s a work that uses her life and her relationship to art to play with history, to ask questions about relevance, and to interrogate what we do and do not value as a society. It’s also a play about how complicated a place Johannesburg is and always has been,” Homann said.

More than anything, Homann explained, having a play like this allows us the duality of interrogating a legacy, and what it means for postcolonial, post-apartheid South Africa, and finding new ways of preserving it, because it is ultimately our shared history.

Asked why people should come to see this play, Homann said: “Leila Henriques is a formidable force on stage and her performance is worth seeing for its focus and detail.

“If that’s not enough, this is work that encourages and provokes a conversation while still being theatrically playful. Audiences can expect something visually strong, complex, contradictory, and rich, performed by an actress at the top of her game.”

Florence enters the last week of its run at the Market Theatre this week, and will end this Sunday. Visit: http://markettheatre.co.za/productions/florence/ for tickets and further details.