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THE ‘WAH WAH’ EXPERIENCE (article first published : 2004-09-26)

When my agent –who is also my husband - came home one evening and said “Don’t lose any weight”, I knew that something good was brewing! I wasn’t wrong. It was the offer of a part in a film currently titled “Wah Wah” directed by Richard E Grant to be shot in Swaziland. “Wah Wah” is semi-biographical and includes incidents in Richard’s early life in Swaziland. The break-up of his parent’s marriage mirrors the gradual dismantling of British rule in the countdown to the Swaziland Independence.

With a stellar cast headed by Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Miranda Richardson, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my acting career.

The first scene I was in was the burial of Harry Compton (the character of Richard’s father) and it must have been an evocative moment for Richard when Sibusiso Mamba – incidentally, the only Swazi citizen to enter RADA - re-enacted the moment when a zealous revivalist jumped into the coffin to revive the body. Harry is played by Gabriel Byrne who found it a fascinating experience to watch his “own” funeral. He announced that he was most appreciative that we all looked as if we really mourned his passing and even took photographs of himself lying in the coffin!

This scene, set on a steep grassy hillside in the Piggs Peak area and accompanied by the haunting sounds of a composition by Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), represents the finale. The magnificent scene down the Phophanyane valley with the mountains either side will undoubtedly provide a poignant ending to the film.

The two-day burial shoot was a tricky time for me as a former injury to my foot meant that I needed my ankle brace to negotiate uneven ground but there was always a ready – and much appreciated - hand of support from crew and cast to prevent me from falling.

The location then moved up the hill to the magnificent grounds of the Boshimela homestead which had been transformed for a garden party. This was one of those tricky scenes where the props crew is much in demand to ensure that drinks and cigarettes are always at the same level and length for continuity purposes! By early afternoon, a light wind had got up and the balloons were popping everywhere. One of the extras remarked laconically: “Now you know what it’s like to have a children’s party in Swaziland!”

Exciting new British star Nicholas Hoult plays the teenage Richard (sharing the role with Zachary Fox as the younger boy). Also proving that youngsters can hold their own with the stars, were Sid Mitchell and Richard E Grant’s daughter, Olivia. The local film industry should also take note of the talents existing just over the border of Swazi performers Mathokoza Sibiya and Sindisiswe Nxumalo who play the servants of the Compton household. I had a marvellous scene with Mathokoza in the vegetable garden where he is being auditioned for a singing role!

My part was that of a large and jovial member of the Swaziland Theatre Club where a group of avid thespians are putting on a production of “Camelot”. Adding to the excitement, is the prospect that the show will be attended by Princess Margaret who will officiate at the Independence celebrations. Here the delicious comedy qualities of Julian Wadham and Fenella Woolgar contributed considerable fun to the mild chaos that made up the “Camelot” preparation scenes.

Julie Walters plays Gwen who lands the role of Guinevere and so most of my scenes were with her. If I admired her ability before, my respect knows no bounds now that I have been able to work with her at close quarters. Petite and full of delicious humour, she is utterly focused, a generous performer who knows exactly what her director wants and gives a stunning performance – and more - in every scene.

There is a wonderful scene in the Cuddle Puddle (hot water springs) at night after the “Camelot” party where most of the cast are in the pool. I stand behind Gwen (Julie Walters) with two other friends trying to keep her under control as she blithely launches into a mock Gypsy Rose Lee strip! That’s when I recognised the true Walters’ genius. It was freezing cold, she was wearing spiked heels and dancing on a dangerously uneven surface but she sailed through it without demur to a standing – well, swimming – ovation from the rest of the cast!

Long-established Durban audience members will remember Tom Bayly who directed “A Man for All Seasons” for the Durban Theatre Workshop Company in 1978, returning in the late 80’s to direct “Zorba” for the then University of Natal. Having directed productions at the Swaziland Theatre Club since its inception, his input regarding the operations of the theatre was invaluable. His character was played by South Africa’s Michael Richard. Also from South Africa were John Matchikiza, Ian Roberts and Clare Marshall.

My final scene was at the Somhlolo Stadium where the imposing John Carlisle was impressively bedecked in the uniform of the High Commissioner. The sight catapulted me back to my youth in Kenya where as a child I was always fascinated by the fact that the egret feathers on those splendid helmets never took off in a breeze!

Richard E Grant’s long and illlustrious career as a movie actor means he understands the film-making maxim of “hurry up and wait”. He was always quick to thank his cast, extras and crew for their patience while the necessary technical changes were made to create new camera angles. “Wah Wah” is the first time he has scripted or sat in the director’s chair and with his appreciation of what happens on both sides of the camera, I am confident that he will be creating some fine productions in the future. – Caroline Smart




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