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Taking liberties with Lady Phillips

Florence

IN here, on my own: Lady Florence Phillips (Leila Henriques). Photo by Lungelo Mbulwana.

SHE WAS NOBODY. That is, until she met and married mining magnate Sir Lionel Phillips, and gave life to the possibility of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – amongst other things – which became central to much of her life’s ambition. Lady Florence Phillips is an icon in historical South Africa, and a dodgy one in today’s terms, because of all that plentiful white privilege she reeks of. Playwright Myer Taub takes on the whole monster of Florence, living and dead, and what she still represents to this city, in this monodrama, which saw light of day some years ago, but has been considerably reworked.

The play as a self-standing entity is quite difficult, for three reasons: The script is peppered with ellipses, which rupture the grammar’s fluidity, often cutting out pronouns and forcing concepts that are not always described. If you do not have a grasp of some facts associated with Lady Phillips’s rather extraordinary life, and of the contemporary fracas of the fence around the Johannesburg Art Gallery building, you may find yourself lost around what she’s talking about. This is a pity because it flattens the richness in the internal poetry cast around the city in its pride and filth, glory and decay.

And thirdly, it takes some time before you realise that the ghost is in dialogue with the absent playwright, at times. This brings a disturbing self-reflective element into the work, which sullies the historical approach and conjures up an “I” in the narrative that feels arrogant and out of place.

Having said that, Leila Henriques does a truly exceptional job in navigating through the text, bringing fire and three-dimensionality to the memory of this woman, who was often left alone, in a city which she loved and hated, becoming a figurehead ‘Queen of Johannesburg’.

Henriques does all of this while she deals with a very complicated set that has lots of tricks enfolded in its construction. Indeed, this set should be listed in the credits as an individual entity. Resonating with the idea of the wrought iron green fence which still stands controversially at the JAG, separating the majestic gallery building from the rest of Joubert Park, the spiral set sometimes obliterates your line of sight, and leaves the actress imprisoned. As, clearly, it is meant to.

It’s a set within a set that makes you wish to see it spin on its own axis, and while this doesn’t happen, the fanfare of the green bars is further complicated with the use of strobe lights and a spot of rain: a level of realism, which, given the loose use of other props and costumes – her bustle is of plastic and worn outside her clothes; it’s doubtful that there were plastic cigarette lighters in the 1880s; and Chanel No. 5 only came into existence in 1921 – feels a tad overworked and underthought.

One further gimmick is the screen to the right of the stage, particularly when it offers words to describe the several acts in the work, in a way that makes it feel contrived, even though you greet the painting of Lady Phillips with a tinge of familiarity, if you’ve known and loved the historical collection of works in the JAG, over the years.

To its credit, this is, however, a brave and viable focus on one of South African culture’s heroes, in spite of fashions that paint her an enemy. It’s a work that might draw you to read Jillian Carman’s profoundly detailed foray into the history of the JAG, Uplifting the Colonial Philistine, as it may even bring you to wish to visit some of the architectural gems in Johannesburg that Florence mentions, from the JAG itself, designed by Edwin Lutyens, to Herbert Baker’s magnificent Arcadia. But further to all of this, the boldness of the play is something that gives theatre visitors renewed hope in the continued fire in the belly of this industry, that sees theatre-makers going where no one has yet been.

  • Florence is written by Myer Taub and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Richard Forbes (set), Karabo Legoabe and Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and is performed by Leila Henriques until August 26 at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. Call 011 832-1641.
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