BORN TO FRENCH-SPEAKING parents, but committedly South African, theatre director, stage actor, film and tv personality, Sylvaine Strike is, according to the French Ambassador, His Excellency Christophe Farnaud, and the power invested in him, a bridge between the two cultures. He said this at a deeply moving, intimate ceremony, hosted at the French Embassy in Pretoria, last Thursday evening, March 28, as he honoured Strike with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
Established in the late 1950s, this award, comprising a silver eight-pointed, green enamelled asterisk-shaped medal and a ribbon bearing four white stripes on a blue background, was inaugurated to celebrate exceptional people who have “significantly contributed to the enrichment of French cultural heritage”. Effectively, this honour puts Strike in the same league as writer William S Burroughs (1984), dancer/choreographer Rudolf Nureyev (1992) and composer Philip Glass (1995), to name but a few, including of course the artistic director of Dance Umbrella, Georgina Thomson and South African dancer/choreographer Greg Maqoma who were thus honoured in 2017. People with their fingers on the creative pulses of the time.
In his speech, Farnaud took the audience back to 1998, when, five years after graduating at the University of Cape Town, a young Strike was supported by the French Institute to attend L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques LeCoq in Paris, where clowning, physical theatre and mime became a part of her performance language, leading to her forming of her own company, The Fortune Cookie Theatre in 2000 and staging creative, innovative and soulful works, such as Baobabs Don’t Grow Here (2002), The Travellers (2006), The Table (2011), to name a few … in total, so far, some 15 highly acclaimed performances and collaborations.
Strike’s work on classical French works such as Molière’s The Miser and Tartuffe caused many in the international theatre arena to sit up and take notice of her courage and indomitable spirit, to go, effectively where few would dare to, in taking on a foreign language work, penned in the 1600s by arguably the Shakespeare of French theatre lovers. Indeed, she is known for her respect of the timeless sacred things of theatre which come together in a darkened room.
Strike responded in both French and English, commenting on the strangeness of life in South Africa and the tenacity one needs to not give in to the stresses of a rapidly evolving and oft violent society. “Being an artist in South Africa, one struggles to keep the light burning.”
When you think of Strike’s theatre work and award-winning status, you remember how it engages the idea of humanity from the gut, making you, in the audience relate so well, you often feel exposed and naked. “It is the small stories of ordinary people that resonate on an epic level,” she said, commenting on how the human species has an astonishing capacity for hurt.
“The poetry of being alive is allowed through the portal of laughter in the sacred space of the theatre,” she continued. “And the privilege of being able to make work of the highest collaborative quality possible is real,” she commented on how not one step of hers on this journey has been alone. “Each step happened because someone, somehow believed in me. The arts happen because an entire community allows it to blossom. My thanks are due to those who saw me, who lifted me, who invested in me and who promoted me.
“Our craft is considered by many to be a luxury in our country so crippled as it is by strife.” She acknowledged everyone who has played a part – from her parents and sisters, husband, son and daughter – to the different components of the theatre industry, including the audiences “without whom there is darkness.
“France is a country that treasures humanity and culture”, she concluded, added how the reality of bringing it home has been a humbling privilege for her, “as I look back on what a turbulent, bizarre and magical career, it has been for me so far.”
- Strike plays Hilda Bernstein in Jean van de Velde’s film about Bram Fischer, An Act of Defiance (2017), which released in South African cinemas on April 26.
- South African arts consultant Mandie van der Spuy will be also conferred with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres during the month of April.