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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SAVAGE FROM THE COLONIES (article first published : 2001-07-7)

New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield attended Queen’s College for young Ladies in London in 1903. This should have groomed her as a genteel person of decorum who would grace the hand of any member of the nobility.

Instead, Katherine Mansfield became an outspoken rebel, one who was happiest when breaking rules. She had a series of passionate relationships and married music teacher George Bowden to cover an unwanted pregnancy although the marriage was never consummated. Her mother took her off to Bavaria to await the birth and then give the baby away but leaves after staying only a week. Katherine has a miscarriage. Next comes an affair with Polish translator Floryan Sobieniowski from whom she contracts gonorrhoea. This disease, which complicates a surgical operation, renders her sterile and slowly destroys her health.

Hailed in 1921 as “the most remarkable short-story writer of her generation in England”, her friends and acquaintances included David Herbert (DH) Lawrence, his wife Frieda and Virginia Woolf. She eventually married critic John Middleton Murry, whom she pithily described as being an “obsequious worshipper of the rich and famous.”

Writer and producer Janet van Eeden-Harrison has focused on the character and life of Katherine Mansfield for her three-hander play A Savage from the Colonies, the title being drawn from a barbed description once made of the writer. Jointly directed by Peter Mitchell and Ian Roberts, the production is appearing on the Fringe of the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown

The cast is well chosen. Vera Clare, well-known for her many performances in Pietermaritzburg, plays Janet van Eeden-Harrison herself – The Writer. She is the inner strength of the play. She acts as Katherine Mansfield’s alter-ego or conscience – occasionally speaking her dialogue. Playing Katherine Mansfield with the right feeling of desperation and anger is Stacey Taylor (soon to be seen in Durban in Kwasuka Theatre’s Piaf – No Regrets).

The play is set in the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man – Katherine feels cynical that its philosophy will cure her TB, advocating as it does the peeling of potatoes, working on the land and sitting with the cows. She is expecting her husband to visit at any moment and is frantically tidying the mess of memorabilia contained in a wooden trunk, each piece generating another memory.

Then her brother Leslie Beauchamp (Chummy) appears. But how is this possible? He’s been dead for seven years, killed in the war. This role is played with sensitivity and maturity by Justin Southey, a drama student from University of Natal Pietermaritzburg. Vocally, he also has a nice feel for the style of the period.

This is an interesting and well-presented play which should make you want to learn more about this flamboyant writer. – Caroline Smart




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