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Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Tribute to the late John Moss from former director of Drama for NAPAC (now the Playhouse Company)

The following is a tribute to the late John Moss from Murray McGibbon, former director of Drama for NAPAC (now the Playhouse Company) who is now at the Department of Theatre and Drama at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, USA.

I heard of John Moss’s passing on my way to start rehearsals for a new production of Hamlet I am directing in the USA. John had been much on my mind earlier in the day as I reminisced about the first professional production of Hamlet I had seen, in my matric year at Maritzburg College. John had assembled a stellar cast including Hywell Bennett as Hamlet, directed by the legendary Peter Dews, who also played Claudius. The work was a matric set-work in 1974 and I was sent to interview members of the cast for “The College Crier” a schoolboy rag magazine.

Whom should I meet backstage but the legendary Mr Moss himself? He was courteousness personified and introduced me to the actors of the company and organized a private interview with Hywell Bennett (I still have his autograph), all heady stuff for an impressionable 17 year-old.

My father was a member of the then Provincial Council and one of his perks was complimentary tickets to all NAPAC productions. From the age of 12, I had been privileged to see world-class drama, ballet and operatic productions staged by what I then thought to be the best theatre company in the world – The Natal Performing Arts Council. Now some 39 years, and considerable professional experience later, I realize that much of my formative theatre appreciation was shaped by John Moss. I also recognize that my ‘twelve year old’ estimation of NAPAC was not far wrong. The significance of that magnificent institution has yet to be recognized.

The “Undisputed Prince of Pantomime”, “Boss Moss” or simply “John”, he was my colleague and friend. When I learned that he had been brought to South Africa originally to star in a Marjorie Chase Ice Show in Durban, I headed for my collection of programmes (yes, I am as an inveterate collector of theatre memorabilia and ephemera as John was) and there I found his photograph as Prince Charming in Cinderella(or was it Sleeping Beauty?). Unknowingly I had first seen John Moss when I was about six years old.

Many years later when I joined NAPAC, I was taken around the complex to meet the various Heads of Department. When I was introduced to John, he said: “Murray McGibbon? I know that name”. He then proceeded to his filing cabinet from where he produced a letter I had written to him as a student asking to work on one of his productions. I was astounded that he would remember me from a single letter.

During my tenure with NAPAC, we became good friends and colleagues. One always felt that one was in the presence of a true theatre professional when was with John. He had a penetrating sense of humour and did not suffer fools gladly. But the joy he brought to hundreds of thousands of theatre lovers in Natal was immeasurable. He had a keen eye for detail and all his productions were noted for their impeccable style and finesse. When South Africa was the pariah of the world, he brought the world to South Africa, through his outstanding drama productions for NAPAC. Designers like Jean Jefferson Fargeon and Hugh Durrant – major players on the West end stage, became household names in Durban. We were spoiled indeed!

After John retired as Director of Drama, he became Deputy General Director of NAPAC for a year before retiring from the company and returning to his native England. At the time, I was the youngest Artistic Director of a Theatre Company in South Africa and John could have easily assumed a position of superiority and distance. Instead, he took an active interest in our work, and was sincere in his praise and recognition of our efforts.

I had the great pleasure of employing him shortly after he retired, as the character Firs in The Loft Theatre Company production of The Cherry Orchard. John was always very appreciative of this opportunity and it was a fitting end to his professional career in South Africa.

My wife Ashley and I had the great pleasure of visiting John and his wife Jill at the home in Hove on the Sussex coast, after they had left South Africa. After enjoying great food and wine, we reminisced about the “good old days” with John making frequent trips to his immaculate filing system to retrieve letters, programmes and photographs. I swear that letter from a precocious university a student was amongst them!

John Moss was an institution; a humble, yet great man of the theatre. To my mind, his Cinderella is the best script of that much-produced pantomime. I hope that his name will live on and continue to touch audiences around the world with productions of this inspired work.

I know I speak for many of my colleagues in sending our deepest sympathies to his wife Jill Fenson, his daughter Miranda, and her husband Shane and their young son Milo. You can rest assured that the footlights in the great theatre in the sky are truly burning brightly tonight.