Arts Festival

Lynette Marais: The hand that rocked the cradle



SERIOUS jokes: Lynette Marais. Photograph courtesy Facebook.

LYNETTE MARAIS died from cancer on 28 August 2020. In other times, theatres across South Africa would have dimmed their lights.

But we are in lockdown, in hiding from a lethal virus, and so it is up to our socially distanced screens to pay our respects to the diminutive woman who grew a small arts festival into an international force. Around the globe, people – journalists, artists, friends, all of them admirers – will be typing their soliloquies about a woman who routinely punched above her weight.

When Lynette Marais “retired” from the National Arts Festival in 2008, I interviewed her for Cue newspaper. This portrait remains necessary. It reminds us how much all artists have lost now.

Lynette Marais is very like a politician. The outgoing National Arts Festival director is urbane, diplomatic, guarded, very aware of image – her own and her Festival’s – and a formidable negotiator.

But the difference between running a country and running a country’s biggest, oldest and most prestigious festival are the constituents. Marais is incorruptible when it comes to hers. For instance, she refuses to say who might qualify as the most memorable artist she’s met. “There’ve been some wonderful ones,” she declares before pausing, presumably to navigate a safe course through a volatile ocean. “I just can’t pick one above another.”

However, there are some names she upholds, but only because they espouse beliefs similar to hers. “There are people I really admire, because over a time I’ve seen them grow – Pieter-Dirk Uys, Janice Honeyman, Sandra Prinsloo, Antoinette Kellerman, people of that ilk – who are today how I knew them 30 years ago. They’ve developed into top artists and there’s nothing grandiose about them. They’re still the same people I knew and still know. For me that’s very precious, because you can see why their work is what it is. They’re real people, true people. It’s not about ‘who am I?’. It’s about the work. The work, the work, the work. It’s very, very special.”

Then she adds quickly: “There are lots of other people like that.”

“Some people, I’m afraid, get carried away with their own importance,” she adds. “They don’t do themselves a favour, and they don’t do the people they work with a favour. Because when you’re standing on that stage you’re as vulnerable as anybody else. I’m a great believer in ensemble work, in a team doing things together.”

It is widely known in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) that Marais routinely leaves her Monument office in the middle of the night. This is partly because good teams require good leaders: “I’ve headed the team but without the team I’d have had no head,” she says. But it’s also because, like a good artist, it’s about the work.

“The attitude all my life is a quote from my father who used to look at me and say, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, my girl’. Everything you do, do to your very best. Because it’s not only for your company and everybody else, it’s also for yourself. You gain respect from people when they know you’ve really given of your best. Sometimes you fail. But you know you haven’t failed because you haven’t not done your best. If I need to wash the coffee cups at one in the morning, it’s no skin off my nose. If I need to sweep the stage, I’ll sweep the stage. Nobody is too grand for anything. A title means nothing. How we all do the job doesn’t matter, we’ve just got to get it done. I don’t need any prima donnas. We’ve got enough of those and those we look after. But we can’t afford to be.”

Speaking of the Festival, she comments: “It’s the artists first, and then we try to put the trimmings. It’s what they require to be on that stage and to be able to give of their best without worrying if the telephone’s going to ring or the curtain’s going to come down. To be that cradle of support so they can shine in the best possible way they can.

“I like to think of the Festival having a dignity,” she says. “It has its fun, but I like it to be like a well-oiled machine. We all make mistakes. And you make mistakes when you do big things – that, you have to accept. But how do you fix them easily, quickly and painlessly? There’s no point in getting your knickers knotted in front of anybody.” Changing her tone, she says: “You can go and do that quietly at the back.” Marais adopts a staged playfulness but her eyes have that look. The joke is serious.

So Marais smokes, which keeps her knickers free of knots. Mostly. She didn’t intend to be a smoker but sharing a student flat with Rhodesians who smoked quickly turned her into one too. And it was supercool to pose in theatre foyers with a Sobrani colour-coded with a striking outfit. Now cigarettes are so much part of the Marais persona that it’s hard to think of her without them, and her laugh never lets you forget that it has been matured in smoke. Both her giggle and her guffaw, despite coming from different places in her throat, are deep and rich.

And what of the disciplined hand that rocks the cradle of support: what will Marais do after the curtain comes down on this year’s Festival? “I’m really looking forward to just pottering around in the garden, going for a walk, reading, going to a movie, fixing my house, cleaning the wardrobes,” she says. “I’m interested in a lot of things and that’s the joy of being in Grahamstown.”

Abruptly Marais returns to her politician role. “I love Grahamstown and I love the people. There’s so much you can contribute to.” She refers to her faith (“I’m a committed Christian”) and the hope that retirement will bring with it a deepened religious life.

She also intends enacting a fantasy, which she represents with a voice faraway and wishful. “I imagine sitting on my verandah at sundowner time with a glass of wine or a little whisky, a cigarette, and thinking, ‘oh, I wonder what the boys [Ismail Mahomed and Tony Lankester who took up the Festival’s reigns that year] are doing up on the hill’.” Because, as she quietly points out, “It’s quite a big job to pick up.

“I’ve just been so lucky having such wonderful support from the people I work with and from the people of Grahamstown. They all know and understand it’s not an easy job. I’ve worked hard, loved every minute of it. What a feast of an opportunity I’ve had. Meeting people, growing with things. I have great memories. But my time is up now.”

Born on 21 December 1943, Marais leaves her older sister Rosemary and younger sister, Felicity and their families. Her beloved husband Tony passed away many years ago.

3 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting this interview Robyn. It brought back good memories and a few new insights about the amazing Lynette.

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