Independent Online obituary

Posted on 30th March 2018 Under Tributes

Renowned SA stage designer mourned

A star has faded, and our world is a whole lot dimmer for this. But that same brilliant star has transcended into the huge, midnight-blue firmament, (one often reflected in his magnificent designs) and the sky above us now shines brighter for its presence as he beams down on Joburg, Bath, London, Bregenz (Austria), Chicago, Tokyo, Vienna, Paris, Los Angeles – to name but a few places where Johan Engels unstintingly and without reserve spread the glow of his earthly talents.

I cannot believe that I am writing an obituary for my very dear friend, who just recently and so unexpectedly departed. I am one of a large group of close friends that Johan has left behind. He had an extraordinary capacity for befriending people, expressing interest in them, and giving of himself and his life-passion to anyone who was within his sphere and was prepared to accept his largesse. And now we, this same big group of friends, in our own hearts have innumerable vivid personal and individual memories of a wonderful, generous, larger-than-life personality.

What is it that was so special about Johan? Because he was, undoubtedly, very special.

I will simply recall a series of stream-of-consciousness personal impressions that may create a full, loving picture of our friend, and I hope to do him justice and honour.

Who was the plumpish, cherub-faced young usher at the Breytenbach Theatre in Pretoria in the early ’70s who watched every single performance of every production there, and rushed home to reproduce miniature models of the sets he saw? Even to improve on them, maybe?

And who was the endearingly opinionated costume assistant on my nativity play Starbrite? The young rooikoppie saying: “Tinsel and sweet-papers on calico? I’m sure I can think of a better alternative!”

And he did.

In Pretoria, wardrobe people talked about the brilliant young costume designer for Romeo and Juliet. Martie Scheepers, Tom Owen and Dalene Holt raved about his amazing feel for fabric and eye for colour.

But though he was praised and encouraged by those he worked with, he himself constantly strove to learn more and improve his already astounding skills.

He travelled to places with which he identified culturally, historically and aesthetically. He brought this home – vibrant and bursting with the art of Florence, the difference of Thai ways, the fascination of Berlin, the cremation ceremonies in Bali – more, and ever more! And he shared this with us liberally.

He soaked up design methods from established designers in London and spent life-changing months in Bayreuth, Germany, enveloped aurally, visually and spiritually in the wonders of Wagner and The Ring.

Johan always had mentors and role models – the young designer Aubrey Couling, who died tragically young. Johan always felt he had been handed Aubrey’s mantle to wear ever after. Neels Hansen (who also died last week) taught him to love opera, Ralph Koltai in the UK ventured into new, abstract territory, Terry Hands gave him thrilling opportunities at The Royal Shakespeare Company and later around Europe.

Then the mutually exciting and stimulating friendship and work relationship with opera director David Pountney, with Maskerade, the highly-challenging, brilliant and compelling The Passenger, many other innovative interpretations of opera, and last year the critically acclaimed, visually fabulous and fantastical The Magic Flute in Bregenz.

And, of course, so many more directors, designers, singers, actors and technical crews shared a deeply rewarding creative link with Johan.

All his best buddies who loved him appreciated the good time he always gave us – the best champagne, cheeses, pasta, prosciutto, presents, visits to theatres, restaurants, antique markets, hours of classical music and visual feasting in his studio, wit, laughter, debate and fun!

As his dear, close friend, Lady Pamela Harlech, said the day after he moved on: “My bestest friend ever… We must just remember him with all the joy we shared.”

The 10 productions Johan and I did together were my most rewarding ever… Showboat, Fledermaus… I will remember them in awe. And everyone else who cherished their experiences with him will too. A sad loss indeed.

His perceptions were profound, and his influence has been mammoth. Breath-takingly inventive, fiercely creative, an artist of great integrity, Johan never opted for compromise or the easy way out. It was this that set him apart from his peers and colleagues. He had a vision, and it was deep, intense, broad and vast!

Now, with his paint-stained fingers, in his black linen jacket with drawing pens in the top pocket and a sketch-pad in his hand, he has gone into the universe of colour and texture, energy and nature that he always revered.

May we as friends to whom he was precious keep his personal and professional legacy alive.

And may we as artists strive to live by his glorious work – and life – ethic!

Goodbye to a much-loved genius.

© Janice Honeyman – Independent Online; 18th November 2014