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Sunday, March 1, 2009


(Pic: Alison Cassels)

Actress Alison Cassels gets back into the nun's habit after her leg injury. (Report by Billy Suter, courtesy of The Mercury)

Alison Cassels is soon to star in Agnes of God, and will also feature this year in Wit, a Durban production to be seen on the main programme at the National Art Festival in Grahamstown

Durban theatre audiences saw her most recently as Aunty Em in The Wizard of Oz. She also made a delightful Kanga the kangaroo in Winnie-the-Pooh, a production being revived soon. But top priority for Alison Cassels is to reprise her role as a nun in a local revival of the play Agnes of God – a role cut short after only one performance last year when she had a foot injury.

Everything had been going so well. The premiere performance had gone off without a hitch and audience mutterings had suggested a hit was on the horizon for Durban’s Fett Diva Productions.

Then came the steps … while leaving the theatre after opening night, actress Alison Cassels simply lost her footing, went head over heels and landed a good metre or so away from the exit. Not long after, a doctor told her she had dislocated and broken three bones in her ankle – and that she would have to be off her feet for some while. So, no sooner had Fett Diva’s production of John Pielmeier’s acclaimed drama, Agnes of God, opened when it had to close. That was early last November at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Square Space Theatre.

Cassels smiles and shakes her head. “When I do anything, I do it properly,” she says, going on to chat about being well enough now for the show to go on. “I am making a very good recovery, but tennis and walking in the Berg are out for about a year. Ankles are nasty joints to break,” she adds. The whole company, she says, was devastated when Agnes of God had to be postponed as a result of her injury, “but it has been Janna’s dream to be in this play – and this time around I am going to ensure that dream comes true”. Cassels is referring, of course, to her co-star and the play’s producer, Janna Ramos-Violante, who fills the title role in the drama.

Agnes of God focuses on a nun who gives birth and insists the dead child was the result of a virgin conception. A psychiatrist (Tamar Meskin) and the mother superior of the convent (Cassels) clash during the resulting investigation. The play was adapted for a 1985 movie starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly.

Agnes of God is a wonderful piece of theatre exploring the power of belief, and I think everyone should see it,” says Cassels. “After all, it isn’t every day you can see an all-female cast performing such extraordinarily powerful roles in an intimate setting.”

Cassels’s most rewarding role to date, she says, was playing Helen Martins in the KickstArt production, The Road to Mecca. “It was a real challenge for this Pommie girl to convince a South African audience that I was a true boere vrou.”

Cassels was born in Hull, “in deepest, darkest Yorkshire”, and none of her family ever wanted to be in the theatre, she declares. She decided at school that she wanted to be an actress and went on to fill a wide variety of roles in the years that followed – performing “everything, apart from cabaret”. She trained at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and lists three career highlights as playing Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs Pearce in My Fair Lady and Helen Martins in (aforementioned) The Road to Mecca. “I have done a couple of films but find the experience not as rewarding as stage work,” she admits, explaining further: “You spend a lot of time hurrying up to wait!”

Cassels came to South Africa in 1982 because her husband got a job here. “We landed up about 40 miles outside Welkom in the Free State –and having lived about 40 miles outside London, it was a bit of a culture shock. But we spent two very happy years there, before moving to Tongaat in 1984.”

Her debut on the Durban stage was playing Teresa Salieri in the then-Napac’s Amadeus. “It was a wonderful cast but, sadly, the last drama at the Alhambra, and I had several lean years on the stage thereafter, but kept myself busy doing radio drama for the SABC.”

Stage work became more regular again when she was wooed by KickstArt directors Greg King and Steven Stead, for whom her most enjoyable role, she says, was playing mother kangaroo Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, which is to be revived at the Playhouse over the July school holidays. Cassels will be relinquishing the Kanga role to Liesl Coppin, however – and for two reasons. One, director Steven Stead has said he doesn’t want to put undue strain on Cassels’s foot – Kanga does an awful lot of hopping! – and, two, Cassels will be more important to KickstArt placed elsewhere over that period.

She will be starring for the company in a biggie – a production of Wit, also featuring Clare Mortimer, Neil Coppen and Olivia Borgen. Margaret Edison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play will premiere on the main programme of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and will then be seen at DHS’s tiny Seabrooke’s Theatre, from July 16 to August 2. Described as “a dry-eyed lesson on how to live”, the drama tells of a woman with ovarian cancer. It’s a play about language and ideas, philosophy and religion; at once funny and sad, tragic and life-affirming. “My role in Wit is that of the leading lady’s mentor and the last friend she sees before she dies. There is a particularly moving scene towards the end of the play,” says Cassels.

Away from the theatre, Cassels busies herself with tennis, reading for Tape Aids for the Blind, “and doing all the ‘domestic goddess’ bits . . . sewing, knitting, cooking, underwater basket weaving”. She shares her home with her “long-suffering” husband, Bob, and has three daughters, “who were all very talented actors, but I’m afraid, ma put them off a career in the theatre”.

If there has been any disappointment in Cassels’s career, she says, it was probably missing the opportunity to play the lead role in Glorious, a comedy inspired by a real person. KickstArt had acquired the South African rights to Peter Quilter’s delightful play for a short time and had planned to stage it in Durban last year. Cassels had been tagged for the lead role of Florence Foster Jenkins, who was a legend in her lifetime. She believed she was blessed with a divine voice and that it was her duty and pleasure to delight friends and, later, the public with her renditions of arias from the operas interspersed with lieder and song. However, her voice, while undeniably powerful, rarely stayed on pitch or hit the correct note, making her renditions discordantly appalling, yet strangely appealing. KickstArt had to abandon its plans for Glorious as the rights fell away when a suitable theatre could not be found and other commitments arose. The hit London production starred Maureen Lipman who, Cassels mentions as an aside, had the same drama teacher as she.

Elbowed for some more name dropping, Cassels throws into the conversation that, as a student, she met up with Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins in a pub, and was in a film with Malcolm MacDowell and Susan Strasberg. That was 1990’s Schweitzer, directed by Gray Hofmeyr, which also featured Henry Cele, Michael Huff, Barry Meehan, Brenda Radloff and Bella Mariani. Cassels played a nurse in this drama about Dr Albert Schweitzer’s adventurous life and trials in the jungles of Africa.

A lot of film work arises from living in Johannesburg, but, thankfully, Durbs seems to be in no danger of losing Cassels to the city of gold.

“If I was asked to go to Johannesburg I would have to think very carefully about it. Besides, theatre in Durban is pretty damn good.” Yay to that! – Billy Suter

The new Durban production of Agnes of God will return to UKZN’s intimate Square Space Theatre from March 20 to 29 at 20h00 daily. To book, contact Claudette at 031 260 3133 during office hours (08h30 to 16h00). Tickets R60 (R40 senior citizens and students).

artSMart editor’s note: It still appears that no attempt has been made at the Square Space to introduce a brighter light or other safety measures such as luminous tape onto the steps Alison fell down – and on which many other audience members have tripped, myself included. Audiences are warned to take great care as they exit the Square Space from a brightly lit interior into a darker outdoors)