Everyone will have their stories of her. Everyone who knew her, worked with her or was taught by her will have some little anecdote or snapshot that they will tell in tribute of her. Students discussed her endlessly, trying to pin down what she was really. People wanted to get a handle on her. They wanted words. Like Eccentric. Ethereal. Touched. Brilliant. Alchemist. Sorcerer.
For me the word that has been chiming in my head all day is lucent. She was just… lucent.
We all have our stories. These are mine.
1992: First year. End of year drama exam. I have not studied, I cannot remember much of the blur of theatre history lectures. But one of the questions is on Noh theatre, and the essay I write comes out whole, intact, as I recall her lectures on Noh. She embodied the form, breathed the detail into us, so vivid, so enraptured. I remember every precise moment.
1993. Second year. My first acting class. The moment has arrived. Class with the fabled Reza de Wet. Nervous but oh so cool students cluster on the Rhodes Theatre stage. She is - shell like, those Noh gestures that we’d later understand as trademark, the fragility that we’d later realise was robustness. The transparent skin. The wicked laugh. She’s telling us to listen, and to hear the mouse. There’s a mouse, she says…can you hear it? Shuffling and giggles, and then the silence as some of us get it and yes – I can hear the mouse, scratching under the floorboards. Yes, there it is, your mouse is over there, and it’s a shy mouse, or a frenetic mouse…she’s telling each person when they have heard the mouse and what kind of mouse it is.
That same lesson, the first one. 'Now stand… here on the stage. Stand…and look up at your feet. Stand….and look up at your feet.' In that one magical marvellous moment, the world swings around, and I am, I am looking up at my feet. My head is down, I am clinging on to the planet with my toes, thoughts and hair and gravity streaming out of my head, and holding on by the grace of who knows what… and then a raucous laugh as she sees it happening, and it dissolves. I am upright again.
Something deep inside me clunks into place like the sound of a safe door finding its combination lock groove. I am here, I am in the right place. Thank God I ended up studying here.
That was second year. The year she berated me for shaving off my hair. Your hair is your antenna, she tells me crossly.
1994. Third year.
While the whole country is shifting around us, the first democratic elections are being held, those wonderful photographs being taken of queues snaking outside voting stations and breaths being held about whether or not we’ll make it over the transition, I am not in
. Well I am, but only
in body. For the rest, I am in the Russian countryside somewhere. Outside, a
cherry orchard is being threatened and I am ‘whining about going to South
Africa ’ as
Richard E Grant memorably puts it in Withnail and I. Varya. And the joyful
delight that Reza gets when we actually manage to give Yepikhodov a pair of
squeaky shoes. In retrospect, I am not learning about acting, as my third year
self would believe. I am learning about writing. For Reza, Chekhov was more
than a muse, he was a regular visitor and adviser. But I am not learning from
Chekhov. I am learning from her. Moscow
And she suggests I do an Ophelia for my 3rd year end of year piece. Together we explore a multiple-personality, nervous, crass, eager-to-please Ophelia. Too interpretive, too conceptual, it bombs. But I know she fought in my corner with the external examiner.
When Reza was supervisor for my MA our visits were not frequent. They didn’t need to be. They were potent instead. I’m not sure that she really approved of the directions my meandering research was taking me, too political for her sensibilities, I’m sure. She’d have wanted me to delve into the mysteries of the mask work I was researching (the gule wa mkulu masquerades), and I couldn’t, I had to talk about representation and identity and outsider ethnographies. But when we sat together in the office of the Anthropology department and that Professor was grilling me about why this should fall under a drama research enquiry instead of an anthropological one, she fought in my corner fiercely. Or would that be flirted? She endured the brutal espresso he prepared for us, gasping weakly for a little milk.
I will remember her in the latticed shadow of that room in her house where she saw visitors, afternoon light striking her sideways, she might have been a collection of dust-mites, she seemed to be dematerialising in the
East Cape light. But
also not. Also, more present than most people are capable of. She told me about
a plant that she had been sitting next to for many consecutive afternoons that
summer. How this plant finally, one evening, gave itself up to her, and emanated
its essence to her, just released its …essence for her. Except she put it
better than that.
We who liked to think we knew her thought we could see past the ethereal, chaotic, discombobulated exterior she projected, we liked to say things like, oh but that’s just for show, she’s really very grounded, its part of her mask, actually she’s really very organised. And things like that. But of course she was much better at escaping definition than any of us were at pinning one on her.
When the visiting psychic came and we were only allowed one question each, and we sat, bristling with questions in the theatre auditorium, her one question was, “what is it I need to know?” Sensible to the core, where it mattered.
She was all the stories and myths that we spun around her. And she was none of them. I recently read of Oscar Wilde that he said “What is true about a man’s life is not what he does, but the legend he creates around himself… You must never destroy legends; it is through them we’re given a glimpse of the real face of a man.” I think she got this on a fundamental level. But it was instinctive, never contrived.
Now we are colleagues, we work in the same department and fights brew and simmer about workloads and contact hours. I remember one, in particular. Not the content, just the feeling, the hot explosive feeling of a small, intimate, family vibe staff meeting where things have been left unsaid for so long and emotions simmer under the surface. And her shock, her incomprehension that these are spilling over. Of course an empty office with her name on it is more important than workloads. Of course it doesn’t matter that she hardly teaches anymore and takes mysterious time off to write plays. I get it now that my youthful arrogance has simmered away. I also know now what that’s like, trying to juggle the student load and the desperate need to fence off the headspace for writing. It must have been an enormous strain.
In the design studio, sometime in 1999, she is cranking up the wheezy old computer that we both had access to for email. After my grandfather died I dreamed about elephants almost every night for a year. I theorise endlessly to anyone who will listen. What does it mean? What do they want? She fixes that eye on me and says, “They want you to write about them”.
And when I did, when there was a production of one of my wobbly first plays, she came to me after opening night, and asked me, laughing “Well how does it feel?” There was so much in that laugh and that question. The generosity of asking it, the understanding, the knowledge that it’s a weird, mixed up bemused feeling at best. The way she had of never actually giving feedback yet somehow imbuing you with the eye to be your own best critic.
Because today, this morning, from about 9.00am, I was hot and bothered and flustered and angry. My son was having a bad day and clingy and needy. Yesterday I discovered a script, 15 pages fragment of something I thought I had lost in the first laptop heist. A draft, a fragment, but something that is worth spending some time on. And I am berating myself, in the car, for the time lost. It’s been 16 years, I say to myself, 16 years since I graduated from honours, and where is the work? Where are the plays, the novels, the stories I was supposed to have put out there by now? And I know that it’s all about the way mundanity seeps through the cracks. Domestic creep. Choosing this over that. Grocery shopping over an hour at the desk. TV over reading. I think of Reza, and understand the fierceness that you need to protect that time. That to be a writer you need to be soft and open and whimsical, but also growling and tough and uncompromising.
And then, an hour later I hear this news. That this great mind, this lucent, embodied soul has hatched into her next phase of being. And I feel so so lucky to have had the time I did. I knew she was sick (only three months ago, it happened so quickly) but I imagined her fighting it with that quirky vitality, that cloudy luminescence.
Another random memory – 2003. I’ve not lived in Grahamstown for over a decade. It’s the end of festival, my show is done, its late at night, I’m partying at Guy’s house. Earlier that day I bought two copper snake bracelets from a hippie near the bowling club. The kind you wear high up on your arm. A healing snake. A random impulse grabs me. I head out into the cold and up the familiar road to Reza’s house, a walk I can do in my sleep coz I used to live next door to her, and –actually I run, it feels like one of those moments when the spirit grips you and you have to obey. I’m not really on popping in terms with the de Wet Reardons any more – its been ages. But there they are, awake, and talking through the festival fare that they have watched – what has been most nourishing, what’s bland and soulless. I’m breathless in the doorway, and I hand her the copper snake – “I bought this today, I didn’t know why I needed two, but here, it’s for you. It’s definitely for you.” And she graciously invited me in for a cup of tea.
I will remember her smile.
I will remember those hazel-hectic eyes, one searching within, one without.
I will remember her cranky blue Mazda which she famously drove in first gear and could never reverse.
I will remember the way she tasted the words as she inhaled before speaking.
I will remember her multi-coloured coat.
I will remember the last time I saw her, at the Drostdy Arch after a Butoh performance, a couple of days before her second grandchild was born. She had that deep soul-satisfied look that she got after seeing a performance that filled her up, as if the air around her had suddenly become delicious.
And from yesterday’s Facebook tributes, these are some things that others remember:
“I'll never forget Reza stopping me on the stairs in the drama department one day. "Timothy you need to move toward light. Stay away from all this dark shit." It wasn't hollow advice and I did not miss in her sentiment a great deal of sincere concern for my soul. And that's how I saw Reza; A Sorceress deeply involved in the world on an ethereal level beyond my understanding.” –Tim Redpath
'See the art within yourself, not yourself within the art' - Reza de Wet. RIP. Thank you.
'She made her mark like a kaleidoscope' - Fernande Wybenga
And is it arrogant to ask, now that she is in the great cherry orchard in the sky, that she may pay us the occasional fleeting visit as Chekhov did with her?