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Feeste | Festivals > Artikels | Features > Fiona Ramsay in conversation with Janet van Eeden about her new role in Sailing Somewhere

Fiona Ramsay in conversation with Janet van Eeden about her new role in Sailing Somewhere

Janet van Eeden - 2011-09-30

Review by JvE

At this year’s Hilton Festival, Fiona Ramsay, always a favourite performer of mine, performed in the world premiere of Sailing Somewhere written by Matthew Hurt. It is directed by Vanessa Cooke and features Tony Bentel on the piano. The ingenious set design recreates the deck of a cruise ship, with a small alcove as Ramsay’s dressing room. It’s made up entirely of gauze backdrops. An aging singer in the Starlight Bar on board a cruise ship remembers the moments which brought her to this transient life on board a ship, singing for her supper. She remembers her mother as a “lovely alcoholic” who drank many bottles of cane spirits with no ill effects except being overcome by a gentle peacefulness. Her mother drank because “her husband was a prick. In spite of being crippled, he was a fantastic adulterer.” The singer used to stare at her mother’s bottles of cane with a ship in full sail on its label. To her, the ship represented freedom. Her early life with a drunken mother and a disinterested father leads her straight to Mickey, the “Marlon Brando of Montclair”. Soon she is pregnant and they marry and live with Mickey’s mother. Her baby, Zoe, is doted on by Mickey and his mother and they seemed “happier without me”. She leaves Mickey when Zoe is only two and begins to sing in a bar. Even though it’s a dive, she falls in love with singing. She then marries Andrew and thinks that she and Zoe might have a real family after all. Except that when she comes home unexpectedly one night she finds their family is not so real after all. She fails to act on what she sees and her relationship with Zoe is flawed from then on. Now on board the ship, in between songs with an adept Tony Bentel playing the piano, she thinks about whether she’ll contact Zoe when the ship docks in Durban. With the use of the myth of Demeter losing her daughter Persephone to the underworld, parallels are drawn between Ramsay’s character and her lost daughter.

After a tentative start from a svelte Ramsay (this was only their second performance) she gets into her stride as the washed-up singer living on board with a panoply of losers. Ramsay’s voice is gin-gritty and in the lower registers she sounds like Marlene Dietrich. Ramsay has the ability to pour every ounce of raw emotion into the songs, which reflect her sense of being “all at sea”. This creates a deep poignancy to each song which reminded me of Edith Piaf at times. This very watchable show is coming to the Theatre on the Square in October and is well worth seeing.

(Slightly altered extract from a review in Sunday Independent, 25th September)

 Q and A

Fiona, this is quite a demanding role for you – on stage throughout the play, singing with Tony Bentel, as well as keeping the audience enthralled with the story of the lounge singer on a cruise ship. Is this very different for you from one-woman shows such as Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads which I’ve seen you in before?

One-person shows invariably are challenging and demanding, both in the rehearsal room and once on stage in performance, requiring large portions of energy and focus, and of course an ability to remember lines! However, it is not as “solo” as it seems, because the audience always play their part – they are the other character(s) in many ways – and just how the show unfolds each night is hugely dependent on their receptivity, involvement and enjoyment. As with other one-person shows I have performed in – like Talking heads, My brilliant divorce and Book Club – it is the life and story of the character that is the most crucial element to capture. One’s aim is to reveal a particular life, and each character’s life is different, so no two characters are ever the same in how exacting they are or the demands placed on the actor.

Putting on a new South African play is always a challenge. I know, as I’ve been there six times before with plays opening at the Grahamstown Festival! It’s always nerve-wracking to perform to an audience with untested material. What was the biggest challenge for you on opening night with this show?

Opening a show does take its toll on one’s nerves, and as the lounge singer in Sailing Somewhere says, just with “going on stage more adrenalin is pumped into the blood than when you are in a car accident!” This is actually true – so actors could be said to be in a permanent state of “trauma”, or “adrenalin junkies”. I suppose one just learns to manage it, use it and ultimately enjoy it! Opening at the Hilton Festival was unique for me in that it was the very, very first time anyone was seeing the play – usually one has had a short run elsewhere or the play has been seen in another form, in another country or city with another actress. But here there was no frame of reference and I did feel an enormous responsibility to the writer Matthew Hurt to do justice to the character and script, and, of course, to the composer Connor Mitchell. The process of previewing a show and running it in is not one that can be curtailed – it is a process that one has to go through – and it always takes one or two shows to get the measure of the piece in terms of rhythm, pace, tone and pitch. The second show had settled somewhat and there was significant relaxation in some areas of the piece, and the audience, too, was more relaxed and open. Of course, when one performs a piece for the first time there is that tiny little voice that whispers, “Can you get through this, darling?”, but that is soon quieted by Dr Footlights, as they call him – any ache, anxiety or pain is spirited away by this magical medicine man, and one finds oneself “‘in the moment” and “in character” and one is inevitably “sailing somewhere”!

How did this play come about? I thought the part was tailor-made for you. Did Matthew Hurt approach you with his idea, or was it already written by the time you were asked to play the role?

Mark Hawkins (producer) knew Matthew from Durban (where they both hail from). They had recently made contact again, and Matthew sent him some of his recent work. We had a read-through of Sailing Somewhere and it instantly struck a cord with Vanessa Cooke (director) and me. (We had previously collaborated on a show about the life of Marianne Faithfull – I played the iconic ‘60s singer. However, the current economic climate prohibits mounting a production with all five Rolling Stones on stage too!) We were then sent the music and songs by the extraordinarily talented young composer Connor Mitchell, and the combination of narrative with songs seemed to complement each other well. All the other components fell into place – wonder pianist Tony Bentel came on board and brilliant designer Andrew Botha followed soon after. It felt like an organic process from the outset and very right.

I loved the set, and think the gauze flies made a very effective “ship’s deck” backdrop, as well as the cleverly hidden “dressing table” through which you addressed the audience. Could you tell me more about how the designer came up with this idea? When you play to a supper-theatre audience, will you be able to bring this set along, or will it be kept especially for shows in theatres?

As I mentioned, all elements fell into place, really - Andrew (Botha) had experience of working on shows on many similar cruise liners. He was fascinated by the piece and came up with his ingenious design, which is not only evocative and effective, but lights beautifully and is portable – and indeed is such a “part” of the show that it would have to travel with us wherever we tour!

Did you know the very accomplished Tony Bentel before this show? And are you comfortable with the singing/play-acting format?

I have known Tony for about 25 years – Vanessa, Tony and I collaborated on a satirical revue in the late ‘80s called Struts and Frets and I have worked with Tony in cabaret over the years. He is an extraordinary pianist who understands actors and is empathetic to mood and moment! I have written, compiled and performed many solo cabarets and so am comfortable with a narrative interspersed with songs. However, Sailing Somewhere is unique in that the songs are not standards, but are there as the inner tapestry of the singer’s emotional life.

What is the best thing about this play for you?

The character is ordinary – her life is like many other people’s. This is challenging to play as it requires keen attention to detail and the minutiae of life. Both Vanessa and I worked with Barney Simon, the founder of the Market Theatre, who had a profound impact on our work and how we approach it. This play reminds me of the kind of writing that emerged in South Africa during the literary explosion of the ‘80s. The most exciting aspect, I suppose, is that it is South African and a new work. The character does not have a name in the play, but one always gives her a name yourself as part of a you personal biography, and we decided on “Lily”, as a lily floats on water and is Matthew’s grandmother’s name! So there is much on stage that the audience don’t see or hear – but it is there! That is exciting!

What is the worst?

There is no worst, but if there has to be one, it is that one day there will be the last performance of Sailing Somewhere.

Could you tell the readers of LitNet where they can see Sailing Somewhere in the future?

I open at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton in Johannesburg on 5th October and run until 29th October. We are hoping to take it to other centres around the country and possibly film it!