In Zurich by the gold mines,
We’re having our best times - Carl Becker and the Aeroplanes.
I got to know Barney Simon in Yeoville, Johannesburg in 198... I was in my twenties. I had recently lost my last parent and inherited enough money to live on. I had also just aided and abetted my expulsion from the army on the grounds of insanity. And Yeoville, interestingly enough, was one of the few places in South Africa that you could live in and feel sane. Outside of those places, if you were white, you were generally in support of the regime. Or hadn’t thought to question it. Yeoville, bless it, was full of artists, activists, students, musicians, actors and other misfits loosely unified by their hatred of the great white lie. It was a place of interior exile, a delightful hilly little Switzerland and we burrowed in as happily as Lenin in Zurich.
Thus ensconced, and with encouragement of Claire Stopford and Lynne Maree, I wrote a play about my military adventures. It was called National Madness. It was the van guard of a small column of army plays that followed it into the decade, each one at war with the lying idiocy of the media and the state. Nicky Rebelo, also still horrified by his army experiences, saw National Madness.
Nicky was going into production, and, as I understand it, a very difficult relationship with Barney, on a piece he had written. It was called Outers. Outers is the place a South African goes when he has no home. The production was aimed for the Market Theatre main stage. An extraordinary cast was already committed. Nicky recommended me to his director, Barney Simon.
Outers came out of research that Nicky had done among the white tramps in Joubert Park. (There was apartheid even there, and they would have no ‘blackies” in their methylated, leafy domain.) The writing was, is, remarkable, unequalled in it’s ear for the lyricism of the gutter. But there was a clash between writer and director/writer. Barney loved the piece and it’s subject, but he had a problem with the fact that Nicky had used a concealed tape recorder to gain the original material. Outers had extraordinary and authentic dialogue and characters, and, Barney felt, a moral and structural problem. He didn’t want the character from the ordinary world, the character that the audience would most identify with, to be secretly taping. And he was not convinced by the way Nicky, as writer, had dealt with the problem. The result was that while Outers is unequivocally Nicky’s play, Barney was writing the part of Richard, which I played, well into the rehearsal process. I got what I was always asking my agent for: to be challenged as an actor.
And Barney, I think, got challenged as a director. While sometimes effective, I was a limited actor. So Barney and I did a lot of one-on-one work over weekends. We’d break to get a boerewors roll from the Steers Take-away round the corner from his house next to the park. These, he said, were subtly spiced. When we were eating he would say: “Do it now.” I’d have to work the speech we were busy with around the boerewors roll. He was persistent like that. And sometimes frightening. Three quarters of an hour before we opened he was still rehearsing me.
“Don’t worry about the moves” he said, “I can block it any time.”
He just wanted to believe what he was seeing. And now, when I am directing, I have exactly the same feeling. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s true or it isn’t.
Outers was well received by the profession, but not by the critics. The life of the gentlemen of the road was, I suspect, only steps away from their reality. The piece frightened them. But years afterwards I found myself at table at the Troyeville Hotel with Lara Foote, one of South Africa’s most accomplished directors. Somehow the subject of Barney came up and I told her about three young school girls who had watched the show. Their wide-eyed awe and excitement as they experienced the production from the front row had lived with me ever since.
“That was me! That was me!” said Lara.
She told me the production inspired her to study theatre.
It was certainly extraordinary to rehearse. Barney sent us out into the streets of Johannesburg temporarily stripped of privilege. Because we went dirty and worn, doors opened into new worlds. I found myself near the station being used as bait in a gambling game. I won two rand, and a richer mark, seeing, stepped forward for the taking. The con artist had spotted my innocence, which was real, and made brisk use of it. I got a lesson: the street is richer than you think. It has levels that you cannot experience if you walk through it in a suite.
Looking for something in the character of Richard which I was not prepared to explore for him, Barney sent me three times to the public toilet in Joubert Park. I think he was uncertain where to go with Richard. He was sniffing around the gay world that he would navigate later in plays like Score me the Ages. I met, on my third visit , a man whose injured arm oozed through a bandage. He told me that he really should go to the Joburg General, but he was scared that they would hurt him. The gay thing never happened and Richard became, as I had been briefly in real life, a deserter from the army.
Barney never used me as an actor again, but the experience had made us friends. I’d have breakfast at his house and we would share the occasional joint. And once or twice we walked dogs together. We laughed a lot. When my second play, Hellhound, appeared at the Market Theatre it opened under his sheltering wing.
I didn’t go to Barney’s funeral but I write with a piece of sculpture from his house close by my head. I believe that he, like James Phillips, the late great rock star of the eighties who got no airplay because he told the truth, comes to visit me occasionally when I do certain kinds of work. Barney and James never worked together, or even knew each other well, but they shared many qualities. Their roots were in down-market Joburg suburbs. They both owned an profound moral insight, a delightful sense of humour, a love of Durban’s finest hemp, an ability alchemise high art out of authentic South African Experience. They both died around the time apartheid did. When the TASC production of King Lear opened on the Standard Bank Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown in 1998 and Sean Taylor and Jennifer Stein and the rest of the cast rose magnificently to the occasion, I was very proud. I felt that Barney and James lived again in that work. And I knew that they had contributed to it’s being alive. It was built on foundations they had laid.
Barney knew when a thing was true - a performance, a play, the delivery of a line. He saw it, and he knew. He had a glimpse of God, Barney. He ruled nothing out. He didn’t judge. He knew that the good, like the evil, is in the detail. His eye stripped off all status and made us equal. He had a glimpse of God, and he stayed true to it, and it made him great.