ENSEMBLE: (from left) Emilie Owen, Louise Saint-Claire, Michael Richard and Bo Petersen. Front: Richard Gau and Keniswe Tshabalala.
ENSEMBLE: (from left) Emilie Owen, Louise Saint-Claire, Michael Richard and Bo Petersen. Front: Richard Gau and Keniswe Tshabalala.

HIS RETURN to theatre could not have been more perfectly planned had he tried, says director Bobby Heaney, who has been behind the television cameras rather than on stage this past decade.

He returned to direct with a play he had premiered 20 years back, his buddy Paul Slabolepszy’s Pale Natives, at the Market earlier this year, and now he is directing the Pieter Toerien-produced Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, which premieres in Grahamstown before moving to Montecasino for a run, followed by Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town.

Described as Christopher Durang’s giddy Tony award-winning play with Chekovian themes to explore middle-aged despair with breathless, acerbic humour, Heaney knows he has been given rich rewards after a long absence. “It’s refilled my soul,” he says.

He felt blessed to revisit Slab’s iconic Pale Natives and following the initial cast with actors the stature of Bill Flyn and Slab himself, Heaney discovered that with this new cast (Lionel Newton leading the brigade), it was as hilarious and often even more hardhitting – right in the gut. And now he’s on to another play that has been declared a hit even before he’s touched it. “It’s brilliant writing,” he says, and having witnessed a few scenes, I was giggling from beginning to end. It’s the kind of script that is so brilliantly written and with a cast like the one Heaney has, it seems like a done deal. But we don’t want to jinx it!

“It works a little like Pale Native, it’s funny but it also has to be real,” he says, “comedy with real people.” For the director it was all about finding the comedy and placing it very carefully. “We’re dealing very movingly with people who are hurtling towards their twilight years,” he explains.

And as the name suggests, Chekov plays a major role. “It’s one of those where those who know their Chekov will gain, but those who don’t are still watching a very funny play,” says Heaney.

But perhaps those of you in the know should brush up on your Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and Cherry Orchard, all plays that have been done locally on quite a regular basis – and I think there are one or two coming up in the not too distant future.

When it came to casting, Heaney didn’t have to do too much scratching around. On the experienced side he has the marital pair Michael Richard and Louise Saint-Claire as well as Bo Petersen, all of whom he went to varsity with. “I was part of the cast when Michael and Louise met during a production of Othello,” he says. Petersen was in his class at UCT.

Add to that three younger actors, Richard Gau, Keniswe Tshabalala and Emilie Owen, who are all given a chance to shine. “I love that we benefit from their energy and exuberance and they from the veteran actors’ wisdom and experience,” says the director. “It’s glorious that they can work with seasoned actors.”

That is this director’s thing, he loves working with actors and that is what he misses most when doing television. There’s not time. “It’s the luxury of being able to explore and build layer for layer,” he says. That’s why he has promised himself that he will return home to theatre as often as he can. It’s that time in his life when he wants to afford himself the luxury. With this one for example, because he had pre-planned so well, he could give the actors a look-in to work on their physical styles even before coming to rehearsals.

“We’re almost completely blocked,” says Richard, and they’re only two days into the work. That’s where the homework helped.

That’s the thing about people who are passionate about what they do. They want to do it right. And when they have all the building blocks, it’s almost guaranteed.

Currently he’s working as mentor on television as often as he can. “I want to pass on my knowledge to young people,” he notes. Not that he won’t be directing as well, that’s what he loves doing best. But he also wanted the change of rhythms in his life. “I really best understand actors,” he says – because of years of experience but also because that’s how he started.

He’s made some conscious decisions of how he wants to spend his days – or at least some of his days. “I’m certainly a nicer person to live with.

“That’s really what I want to do now. Patrick Mynhardt once said that the stage is the mother of the arts and that’s why I will always return.”

He’s thrilled that the second leg of his comeback is with this brilliant play. “He’s such a fine writer as he tells this story about real people who are really sad” – but does it hysterically.

As an aside, he throws a huge thanks Toerien’s way for giving him this second chance in more ways than one.

• Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays on July 7, 8 and 9 and then moves to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre before going to Cape Town.

• Johannesburg dates: July 12 to August 10.

• Cape Town dates: August 13 to September 6.