By BRUCE DENNILL
Kate Normington is playing The Witch in the Pieter Toerien and Kickstart production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods at the Theatre On The Bay in Cape Town (until 2 March) and at Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg (8 March to 14 April; book at Computicket for both).
So, a witch. Such typecasting – have you had a word with your agent?
To be honest, I was afraid my general air of quiet sophistication might have disqualified me from the more athletic and rambunctious requirements of the part. Having to leap from knoll to grassy knoll, casting spells on people willy nilly, undoing them, keeping the riff-raff from doing themselves too much harm, and so on. But in the end, I’m gratified I was deemed crone enough. My husband, once he’d heard I’d secured the part, had cried out “You’re perfect for the part. You are a witch!” I was flattered. Briefly.
How well did you speak Sondheim going into the show? What are you feelings about his writing and his phrasings and the challenges they place on you as a performer?
Traditionally you needed a PhD before you were considered vaguely qualified to do any Sondheim, but in my humble opinion, with enough backbreaking repetition and discipline, you do finally get to where you’re going. Whether or not you qualify in terms of finesse and the myriad of personal opinions that abound out there is another matter. His work, Sondheim’s, would appear to be unbreakable and seems to shine whether using a Woolies dish rag or a suede polishing cloth. You would seem to get the same brilliance either way. The sublime lyrics and music are bulletproof and no gilding of the lily is required. Of course, you need to have the correct singing chops for what is required from you, but beyond that, the brilliance has already been mapped out. You just need to jump into the suit of the character. Easier said than done I know, but see above regarding backbreaking repetition, soul- and bone-crushing doubt and despair segueing into eventual heraldic and triumphant success. I’m partly being serious.
What is your favourite of the songs you sing in the piece, and why?
I like different parts of the songs. For instance, in the Witch’s Lament, I say, “…children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.” And although Sondheim can sound bleak on occasion, he always tempers his darker wisdom with a merciful hope and irrepressible humour. He writes, “You’re so nice… You’re not good you’re not bad, you’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right. I’m the Witch. You’re the world!”
But then he has the Baker’s Wife sing, “Hold him to the light now, let him see the glow, things will be alright now. Tell him what you know… Careful the things you say, children will listen.” Sondheim writes cautionary tales. Not fairytales. They are a manual on how to live better with insight and courage. Not for the faint-hearted.
The role of The Witch was originated by Bernadette Peters, one of the more enduring Broadway legends, and played by queen of Hollywood Meryl Streep in the film adaptation. Have you taken anything from previous performances that you particularly liked – timings, intonations, other specifics?
Very much so. Those portrayals are certainly in my head, and definitive in certain respects. Both of these performers possess such intrinsic weight and insight, it is difficult not to hear their voices in some form or another. Their voices will ring down the ages. Happily. You obviously have to finally commit to your own ‘sound’ and you will only ever be able to bring your own life experiences to the table in terms of performance, but we all shave closer to the heart of most emotions than we imagine we do, and if we tap into those streams, you find what insights you require to portray specific feelings. We all have them. They’re just waiting to be tapped, for good use.
There is plenty of darkness in Into The Woods (expected, as it was written for an adult audience), but people often forget how dark fairytales are. What were your reactions to or experiences of fairytales (and perhaps the messages they were trying to teach) growing up?
I found them very powerful as a child. Especially stories like Snow White. The wicked stepmother/witch always filled me with a sense of terrifying foreboding, and I suppose I instinctively resonated with the idea that one could be surrounded by such people. You just had to identify them! The stories gave children, and certainly me, a backdrop against which to identify my own villains and heroines. These fairy tales taught you wrong from right, and as Sondheim further clarifies, ‘Nice is different than good’
What still freaks you out in these stories – which we are still telling children today?
I think the idea of Snow White becoming the most beautiful woman in the world, thus usurping the position of the Wicked Snow Queen, is a questionable tale to be telling our children today. The idea that beauty is still considered a powerful political weapon in a modern-day Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and aspirations astonishes me. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children that kindness and compassion are the sought-after qualities we should be striving for? Some would argue that beauty could be construed as just that, but I instinctively feel that we need to be more explicit about what qualities truly qualify you to be a better person. Compassion, kindness and humour!
Do you have a favourite, and what in particular appeals to you in that story?
I liked the story of Rumplestiltskin waking up and being in a better age. I didn’t like the curse he eventually placed on the family, but the idea of time travel, and emerging into a new and awakened age certainly appealed. Not having to go through the growing pains of a New World, but arrive when everything is functioning and beyond that, well-oiled. No Trumps, Putins or Zumas waging war. Just a happy ever after.
Child-rearing tips from a witch: what do people most need to know?
You need to teach people how to treat you. It’s the hardest thing to do, because it requires boundaries, and a lot of us grew up without them. Give your children boundaries, then take them away when it is safe to do so, and watch them fly!