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TRIBUTE TO NERISSA LIVINGSTONE (article first published : 2005-05-20)

Professor Pieter Scholtz, former head of the Speech and Drama Department of the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), pays tribute to his late friend and colleague, Nerissa Livingstone.

Nerissa Livingstone first arrived on the Durban University campus in 1955 as an Emma Smith bursary recipient. As student and, later, lecturer, the Speech and Drama Department of the University was to form part of her life until she retired in 1997.

When the department celebrated its 50th in 1999, Nerissa’s tribute included the comment that she remembered the “magical” Fifties for “thinking that I had discovered the “meaning of life’ through Elizabeth Sneddon and her staff’s inspirational teaching of drama and poetry.”

When we were students, passionate and permissive, Speech and Drama was the only thing that mattered in our lives. The Department then was run by three formidable ladies; Professor Elizabeth Sneddon (Miss Sneddon as she was then) who headed the Department; Joan Little, eccentric but peerless as a voice tutor, and Pamela Robertson (known as “Thatch” because of her blond hair that hung “like flax on a distaff”) who was in charge of the “Theatre Arts” in the Department.

Like all students I kept a scrapbook in which reviews and photos of all our productions were painstakingly pasted. In cleaning out my bookshelves recently, I came across the scrapbooks and indulged in one of those sentimental reminiscences that photo-albums inspire.

I have extracted just a few of the productions that featured Nerissa and realised with a shock that the first of those was almost fifty years ago, in 1956! Here they are:

1956: Rape of the Lock, adapted by Joan Little from the poem by Alexander Pope. Nerissa was, of course, the damsel in distress whose lock of hair was raped. Others in that production (it was our first year of Drama) included Louis Burke, Francois Swart, Lynn Hooker, Roger Orton and Elsa Bamford.

1957: Medea, Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides play. This was in our second year and my first leading role as Jason.

1958: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s delightful comedy had a magical production, directed by Professor Sneddon in the Amphitheatre on Durban’s North Beach. Nerissa was a seductive Titania, with Louis Burke as Oberon. Others in the star-studded cast included David Horner, Francois Swart, David Barnett (as Bottom, the Weaver) and Don Ridgway as Snug, the Joiner. The production was jointly presented by the Durban Publicity Association and the Department; a partnership that was greatly to the credit of both organisations.

There were many other productions in those early years but the one that remains memorable for me was Anouilh’s The Cavern which I directed with Yvonne Bryceland in the leading role of Marie Jeanne. The old Howard College Theatre was transformed into multi-levelled mansion with the kitchen (cavern) below and the world of the Count and Countess above. Nerissa played the Countess opposite Norman Coombs in a production that received rave reviews. The cast include many fine performers, including Ann Wakefield and Jonathan Berwick.

When Nerissa joined the department as a lecturer, after spending several years abroad, she took over the role of Joan Little in the Department, becoming in her own right one of the finest voice tutors I have worked with.

Rest in peace, friend and kindred spirit. – Pieter Scholtz




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