Janet Suzman

Presented by Professor Frank Sanderson

Honourable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Dame Janet Suzman for the award of an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University. 

Janet Suzman, the celebrated South African born actress and director, is receiving an honour today for her outstanding contribution to the performing arts and for her sustained fight against oppression in her native country. At one time seemingly destined for Hollywood, the Oscar-nominated actress concentrated on the theatre where she has played almost all the great Shakespearean female leads and is undoubtedly one of the great classical stage actresses of our time.   

Janet Suzman was born in Johannesburg into a country starkly divided by race. 

She came from a distinguished and liberal South African Jewish family, her grandfather was a member of the South African parliament and her aunt, Helen Suzman, became a celebrated civil rights activist and anti-apartheid campaigner and for many years, the only female MP in the South African parliament.   

Janet was brought up on a farm in Natal where her best friend was a black South African tear-away called Ambrose. Janet went away to the independent and liberal Kingsmead College in Johannesburg where racism wasn't tolerated but was confronted by a harsh reality when she went home for the holidays. She recalls, "Ambrose wasn't learning to read like I was. I suppose I apprehended at a very young age that things were not quite what they seemed."  

Whilst studying English and French at the University of Witwatersrand, Janet had her first experience of acting and also acquired a secret police file as a result of demonstrating against apartheid. She was an active voice against the Extension of University Education Bill which was a means of introducing apartheid into higher education. When the bill was passed in 1959, Janet left South Africa for London and trained for the stage at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.  

In 1962, she made her professional stage debut as Liz in Billy Liar at Tower Theatre in Ipswich, and then became a member of Royal Shakespeare Company where Peter Hall cast her in The Wars of the Roses as Joan of Arc – for which she received rave reviews. Thereafter she played many of Shakespeare's illustrious heroines, including Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Ophelia in Hamlet.   

In 1969 Janet married the RSC Artistic Director Trevor Nunn and together they collaborated on some excellent stage productions during the early 1970s, notably Antony and Cleopatra (1972), Titus Andronicus (1972) and Hello and Goodbye which won Janet the Best Actress Award at the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She won a second for her role as Masha in the 1976 production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Janet and Trevor had a son, Joshua, who is now a physicist at the University of Oxford.

Janet has appeared in many British television drama productions including Saint Joan, Hedda Gabler, as Lady Mountbatten in Lord Mountbatten, The Last Viceroy and in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. Her first film role was in Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971, and she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for her portrayal of the Empress Alexandra. This was followed by A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972) opposite Alan Bates. There is also a filmed record of her Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in 1973, for which she won rave reviews. It is said to be her definitive performance, she was described by one reviewer as "sensational, intelligent, athletic, and ravishing". Janet herself has claimed that it is the most interesting role for a woman ever written, her all time favourite part by a long way.

Other films include Don Siegel's The Black Windmill (1974), Nijinsky (1980), Priest of Love (1981), Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Federico Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983), and A Dry White Season (1990), a powerful film about injustice in apartheid South Africa.

Janet is a proud Patron of The Market Theatre in Johannesburg and in 1976 played in its inaugural production The Death of Bessie Smith with the celebrated African actor, and her great friend, John Kani. In 1988, thankfully defying a well-intentioned equity ban on working in apartheid South Africa, she made her debut as a director with a ground-breaking Othello, also filmed for Channel 4 TV, which won an AA Vita Best Production Award. With John Kani playing Othello in front of a multi-racial audience, the production was a sensational success, not least because of its political relevance at that time, three years before the release of Nelson Mandela.   

Also at the Market Theatre she has directed Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, her version being known as The Good Woman of Sharpeville. She has also recently toured her modern adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, reworked as The Free State, and for which she won the Barclays TMA Best Director Award in 1998. And more recently she directed Hamlet for The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town before bringing the production with its multi-ethnic South African cast, including John Kani as Claudius, to Stratford-upon-Avon.   

Other productions directed by Janet include A Dream of People at the RSC, The Cruel Grasp at the Edinburgh Festival, and Feydeau's No Flies on Mr Hunter at the Chelsea Centre. Her Death of a Salesman for Theatr Clwyd in 1993 was awarded the Liverpool Echo Best Production Award.

Janet holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, London, Southampton, Middlesex and Kingston. She is Vice-President of LAMDA She is a former visiting professor of drama at Westfield College, London. She is the author of Acting With Shakespeare: Three Comedies, a book based on a series of acting master classes. She is an honorary associate artist of the RSC President of the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations Committee.

And last month Janet was made a Dame of the British Empire for her contribution to drama.

In 2002, she returned to the RSC to perform in a new version of The Hollow Crown. In 2005, she appeared in the West End in a revival of Brian Clark's 1978 play Whose Life Is It Anyway? starring Kim Cattrall. Last year they teamed up again when Janet directed Kim at Liverpool Playhouse in a 'fast moving and intelligent' Anthony and Cleopatra.

In 2007, she played Volumnia in Coriolanus in Stratford-upon-Avon for which she received excellent notices. In 2010, she appeared in Dream of the Dog, a new South African play about racial tensions in the post-Mandela era.   

Janet Suzman has always been forceful and independent-minded, once observing, "I don't much relish the idea of wilting women". Growing up in South Africa, she was drip-fed political awareness and developed a life-long abhorrence of injustice and oppression. Like her aunt Helen, she is a champion of freedom. As a student, she opposed apartheid, and continued to do so until it formally ended in 1994. 

Since then, she has continued to challenge injustice, mainly through the powerful medium of the theatre. The hope is that the values of the Market Theatre in Johannesberg, free from racism and class division, will permeate the wider society in the beloved country of her birth.   

We are delighted to honour Janet Suzman, acclaimed actress, celebrated director, and champion of freedom.  

Thus I have great pleasure in presenting Dame Janet Suzman, this most distinguished person, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.