Tribute by Mannie Manim

Posted on 3rd April 2018 Under Tributes

My first memory of Johan is from 1974. We were preparing for the first production to be staged by ‘The Company’, the name that a group of actors, Barney Simon and myself called our group that was to go on and create the Market Theatre. We had come together to start a collective determined to make and share work by all South Africans. Our first season was to be in the Doornfontein Arena which was a large house that had been converted into a hundred-seater venue with bench seating that was created to give younger actors a place to develop their craft.

The Company’s first season comprised Janice Honeyman’s production of May Day Adventure in the afternoon, Lysistrata directed by Barney in the evening and in a late-night slot Hey. Listen! which was 3 monologues written by Barney and featuring Vanessa Cooke, Paul Slabolepszy and Marius Weyers.

I asked Johan to design Lysistrata. He moved into my Yeoville 2-roomed apartment for our rehearsal period. Johan’s witty designs were as much a part of the success of the production as Barney’s naughty direction and The Company’s brilliant performances.

When we moved into the Market premises it was natural that we would ask Johan to design for us. He did so often and created many memorable settings for our productions. Designs that come to mind are The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, I’m not Rappaport, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Mother Courage, As Is, Death of Bessie Smith and Othello.

I also remember with great joy his ’operatic’ design for The Twilight of the Golds directed by Janice Honeyman in the little Tesson at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre.

The last time we were to work together was on Janice Honeyman’s production of Show Boat for Cape Town Opera. Opening at Artscape Opera House and touring internationally, it is yet another memory of a brilliant unconventional design and many happy hours spent working in theatres from Cape Town to Germany, Sweden and the UK.

Johan was a creative genius and both a challenge and a joy for me as a lighting designer and as producer.

In Show Boat, for the original production, he created a wraparound cyclorama that encircled the set in an eternal sky and needed every flood in the Artscape Opera House and adjacent theatres to cover it in colour.

In The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, directed by Robert Whitehead, he created a corrugated iron back wall more than 7 metres high and 5 metres wide, that in one scene required lighting from behind so that it would give the impression of bursting at the seams.

For Othello, directed by Janet Suzman, he created a balcony like one would find in an Elizabethan Theatre upstage which transformed into a staircase to bring actors down to stage level.

I’m not Rappaport had a bridge in Central Park, New York which curved in heightened perspective and gave Steven Collins, master British carpenter, a headache to create out of timber.

One of the things I admired working with Johan was his appreciation of the craftsmanship of the artisans that he worked with. After many an opening night while  the producers, cast and stars were enjoying a champagne celebration in ballrooms, foyers, etc., Johan could  be found deep under or far behind the stage, in the wardrobe or workshop, raising a glass and having a drink and a chat with those who had made his creations come to life onstage: carpenters, seamstresses, tailors, wigmakers, prop makers, welders and stage crew. These were happy moments filled with the camaraderie of those who had worked shoulder to shoulder to make the magic of Johan’s beautiful stage creations come to magnificent life on the stage.

What made Johan exceptional was his vision and his ability to realise even the most complex designs. The gentle cherubic soul would turn into the powerful driving force that would suffer no compromises, urging on the creative team. He would use stages to their limits and beyond and adapt to the limitations of a space in the most inventive ways.

Here is an extract from a speech I made at the opening of a memorial service held for him at the Fugard Theatre after his passing:

“We are here to celebrate the life of one of the greats of our world.

40 years ago, he turned my 2-roomed Yeoville, Joburg flat into his studio/workshop and created the costumes and props for Lysistrata from everything he could find in that flat.

I did not have pots, pans, strainers, colanders or knives, forks and spoons for some time after that, but the first production by The Company that was to become The Market Theatre Company was designed by Johan and I am very proud that he did his first professional design with us.

He went on to design many of our productions at The Market, including I’m not Rappaport, The Native Who Caused All the Trouble and our first Shakespeare production, directed by Janet Suzman and starring John Kani as Othello and Richard Haines as Iago.

He fast became one of SA’s leading designers with a growing reputation for his beautifully realised and detailed work.

It was not long before he went abroad and continued his glorious career.

He has worked in many of the great opera houses and struck up a wonderful artistic relationship with David Pountney among others.

Thankfully he visited SA often and continued his work with Janice Honeyman in particular.

Recently I had the privilege of working with him again on the restaging of Show Boat for its triumphant UK tour.

He will be mourned as a son, a brother and uncle and a friend to many of us here and many all over the world who had the pleasure of getting to know him. He was a great artist of the stage and it has been a privilege to have seen his work and been in his presence and to have worked with him.”