The Menells had no experience of musicals, but plenty of verve and creativity. Between the three of them, they decided to create King Kong.
Pat Williams describes how, as the Menell’s neighbour and as a journalist at the Rand Daily Mail, she was co-opted to write the lyrics, and how the Menells brought them all together, along with set designer (and anti-apartheid activist) Arthur Goldreich.
“They had already been meeting for two or three weeks, and thought of me to write the lyrics because they knew the weekly satirical verses I wrote in the Rand Daily Mail, for which I was also reporter and deputy film and theatre critic,” said Williams.
She recalls in her memoir, King Kong - Our Knot of Time & Music, how soon the team was utterly absorbed in visualising this landmark story: “A true and ultimately tragic story, so familiar to us that no further explanation was needed. The function of the (first) scene, and the song in it, was to establish King Kong as star of the boxing ring, and his popularity among the people in the town.”
Williams was 23 years old at the time and recalls in the book the strong criticism she had, from both friends and family, for socialising and working with people “across the colour bar” during the height of the apartheid era.
She writes: “...between us we broke through insane and cruel restrictions, both of law and convention, which, in South Africa up until that point, had kept people of different races apart, and which had seemed as rigid as iron, as unreachable as say, the prison on Robben Island. Inconceivable, unthinkable - but somehow it happened...”
Williams, now in her 80s, returned to South Africa almost 60 years later for the recent launch of the new King Kong, and recalls how three generations of her family sat in the audience to enjoy what she referred to as a wonderful tribute and superb reinvention of the original King Kong.
Now living in the UK, where she lives half the year in London and the other half on the Scottish Island of Arran, she said she wrote the book as her response to the new production.
“I feel a bit like the keeper of the memories,” the sprightly octogenarian related, as she remembered the heady days when the original story took place.
On reading Williams’s book, Athol Fugard, who, at around the same time King Kong came together, was setting up a multi-racial theatre in Johannesburg, has referred to it as “an extraordinary memoir of the first ever South African musical, which has since acquired mythical proportions”.
Williams said: “When I first spoke to producer Eric Abraham, he said I shouldn’t write a documentary book. But I certainly could do a memoir - so I kind of wrote a memoir and a documentary and threaded my own story.”
The book comes across as a frank and moving record of life in South Africa for the creatives, as well as a record of the extraordinary tours overseas for the cast and the unique situations that all those involved found themselves in.
“I also wanted it to be a social document,” said Williams. “From a very young age I couldn’t understand it (apartheid) - I had a lack of understanding of it all.”
There are many fascinating accounts which detail the difficulties that were rife in the logistics of producing a show of this nature. For example, she relates how tricky it was - almost impossible, given the restrictive laws and time limits - to meet with Matshikiza to work on the lyrics.
“People often ask songwriters which comes first, the music or the words. In our case, there was no choice because it was hard for Todd and me to meet, given the limitations apartheid imposed on where we could meet, plus the fact that we both also had jobs, which made the timing difficult too,” she said.
Williams wrote that an idea was devised by Clive Menell in which her songs were recorded on to the bulky tapes of the times so that Matshikiza could listen to them as he sat at a piano.
Lyrics were tried out in the car there were meetings in a café in Fordburg eventually the whole show came together.
Williams said the reinvention of the original musical brings back a flood of memories. “I was thinking of it after seeing it on opening night, and you could say, ‘same same, but different’. You couldn’t have put it on then, the way you have now. Everyone then was living through those times and these days nobody has to do anything illegal.”
She applauded the new cast and production team: “They were so great about what we had done and achieved and wanted to honour what we had done and speak to a new generation
“What’s extraordinary is that when we did it, my son was not quite two years old; now he is in his 60s and was in the audience with his daughters.”
In her honest and often painful memoir, she describes a difficult marriage and how, just weeks before the original show, she planned to leave her husband. She said: “My life has gone on from King Kong. I continue to write and have penned novels under a pseudonym (which she was not willing to reveal).”
In her epilogue to the recently published book, Williams pays tribute to her close associates and friends from decades ago, who were involved in the show.
* King Kong: Legend of a Boxer, runs at Joburg Theatre from September 12 to October 8. See www.joburgtheatre.com