Reza de Wet
Reza de Wet (1952-2012) was a South African actress, director, playwright, novelist and drama lecturer.
Occasionally credited as Reza Reardon, particularly when directing.
Born Elizabeth Frederica de Wet in the rural town of Senekal in the eastern Free State, the only child of Judge H.F. de Wet and Elizabeth Mary De Wet (née Marais). In Senekal she apparently had a private tutor, but when her father was transferred to Bloemfontein, she attended completed her studies and matriculated at the Hoër Meisieskool Oranje ("Oranje Girl's High School"), which had an active drama club at the time. Her mother, generally known as "Tawty", was involved in local amateur operetta and drama, while Reza herself also excelled as actress, performing in the school plays. The school today has an annual drama festival named after her.
Two other early female influences on her and her work were her maternal grandmother Frederica Rousseau, and her mother's Sotho housekeeper Betty Motsamai, an influence clearly seen in her work. In addition, De Wet was a voracious and apparently eclectic reader, with a particular fondness for late nineteenth and early twentieth century work, such as Gothic and Victorian literature, Russian literature and Afrikaans writing from the first half of the 20th century.
In terms of theatre in particular, three significant theatrical influences from her youth and student days have clearly also had a significant long term effect on the evolution of her particular style of playwriting and the themes she tackled: Her early exposure to the theatrical work of the Afrikaans writers and touring companies, her exposure to circus performances and during her student years, her introduction to Russian realism and the work of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938).
De Wet attended the University of the Orange Free State (1971-1973), completing a B.A. degree in a English and Drama at inter alia being trained in Konstantin Stanislaviski's acting techniques under Henk Hugo at the newly established Drama Department, followed by a post graduate performers' diploma in acting at the University of Cape Town's Drama Department, led by Robert Mohr, who considered her a natural Chekhovian actress and cast her in four of his productions of the plays. She thereafter completed a B.A. Honours in English literature at the University of Cape Town.
In 1999 she returned to University to complete her formal studies with an MA in English Literature from the University of South Africa, with a thesis on The Predicament of Contemporary Man as Exemplified in Six Modern Dramas, supervised by Ian Ferguson.
De wet started her formal career as actress while still in Bloemfontein, and went on to work as actress and later director for PACT (including its Youth Company and The Arena Company), and the Market Theatre, a period when she met actor and director Lindsay Reardon, who was to become her husband.
When she and her husband moved to Grahamstown, she initially lectured in English department, later joining the Drama department staff, to teach, direct and contribute texts and acting. In this period she often collaborated with the Drama Department as well as the First Physical Theatre Company, not only writing the scripts for six of the latter company's productions (works Gary Gordon referred to as "danceplays"), but also performing and touring with the company on occasion.
It was in this time that she really emerged as a playwright, writing all her major plays while living in Grahamstown. In this period, after completing the collection Trits, she turned briefly to prose, completing a novel called Stil Mathilda ("Quiet Mathilda"), published by Human en Rousseau in 1995. Thereafter she returned to prime focus on theatre.
De Wet died of leukemia in January 2012 and is survived by her husband actor and director Lindsay Reardon, daughter Nina Van Schoor, and her grandchildren, Max and Mairi.
Career in theatre
De Wet had a number of related interests, as reflected in the arc of her career, all driven by her strong creative urge and a most fecund and original imagination.
Her first appearances on stage were as schoolgirl for the dramatic society of the school, among which J.M. Barrie's Quality Street, while her roles as student at the University Drama Department in the Bloemfontein, included "Nina" in The Seagull,
She worked as an actress for PACT, including its experimental Experimental Youth Group (also known as The Arena Company), led by Ken Leach. However she also from the start had major roles in main stream productions by the main company. In the experimental company the performers were encouraged to create their own work and to workshop plays. It was here she met Lindsay Reardon, whom she later married.
After the couple had moved to Grahamstown, she occasionally performed again, including roles in Diepe Grond (1985), In a Different Light (1989), The Unspeakable Story (1995). Her final appearance on stage came in 2011 when she was cast in Die See, directed by her husband, Lindsay Reardon. She thrice appeared in plays on video and audio clips: in Drifte (1996), in Verleiding (2005) and, posthumously, in Drifting (2013).
As director De Wet did a number of productions over the years, many of them for the Rhodes University Drama Department while a lecturer there. The plays done include Arthur Miller's The Crucible, (1989) and August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata. She also directed a few of her own plays, such as Concealment (2004) for the department. Her final directing contribution at Rhodes being Heathcliff Goes Home (2007).
She also collaborated with, and directed some work for, the First Physical Theatre Company (FPTC) over the years. An interesting case was her own play On the Lake in 2001, which she directed for the Company, while the Company did its own physical theatre version of it under the title lake...beneath the surface. The two versions ran back to back at National Arts Festival that year.
The directorial texts for the Drama Department productions are housed in the National English Literary Museum (NELM) in the "Drama department archive", while anything directed with or for the First Physical Theatre Company is held there in the "FPTC" archival files.
Fascinated with theatre and performance from her pre-school days, she wrote some early work in English, notably her first play, Heathcliff and the Dancing Bear. However, in 1985 she leapt to national prominence as a playwright when, urged by Francois Swart and Denys Webb, when she wrote and submitted her first Afrikaans play, Diepe Grond, to the ATKV Kampustoneel-festival in Pretoria, where it premiéred sensationally and was immediately taken up for professional performance. This led to a steady stream of highly rated plays, in a distinctive neo-Gothic style of her own (what some refer to as "Afrikaner Gothic").
Having been raised bilingually and trained in both Afrikaans and English, De Wet went on to write at least 26 plays in both languages over the course of 30 years. Some of these have also been translated into other languages.
De Wet's writing was rather enigmatic in its time, a-political, complex and intensely human works in a time of political turmoil and committed writing which favoured the politically explicit. Each play displays a strong sense of time and place, but is usually set in an earlier time and providing a reflection on the complex issues of being a woman in search of freedom and self-expression in a male-dominated society. In view of their complexity and relevance, it is not surprising that a large number of academic studies of her works have been undertaken over the past 25 years (see the ESAT Bibliography for example).
In view of her background and interests, De Wet's work tends to evince a strong literary bias, the structural and stylistic influences on the plays coming from the range of her reading as well as her training in theatre, but the actual theatrical form used by De Wet is more often than not based on the specific type of theatrical realism developed by the core models she acquired as a student of drama: Anton Chekhov and Antonin Stanislavsky perhaps being the most dominant and exciting examples. Tellingly, this was also the chosen form of most of her Afrikaans models. However, to accommodate her wide ranging thematic interests (see below), as well as her exposure to and love of a number of alternative performance forms, such as the circus, the troubadour tradition, the Noh drama and various ritual forms, this basic form is often significantly altered and/or enhanced in performance to break out of the confines of the overt form and to provide for more fluidity of time and place.
These formal aspects become even clearer when one considers the content of the plays, likewise inspired by her eclectic reading, which tended towards (grotesque) fantasy, Gothic and Victorian literature, the tales of the Brothers Grimm and ultimately magic realism. Her plays therefore have somewhat surreal, almost Gothic, feel at times, with the themes often expressed through a range of additional (non-realist) techniques, such as games, rituals, re-enactment of the past, and role-switching by the performers. More pertinently, a number of the plays are influenced by, refer to and use characters and/or themes from the works and lives of various literary and theatrical figures. Among the more recognizable of these are Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Henry James, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, J.M. Synge, Eugène O'Neill and Athol Fugard from the world canon, while the Afrikaans writers include Uys Krige, H.A. Fagan, C. Louis Leipoldt, Eugène Marais, J.F.W. Grosskopf, Alba Bouwer, André Huguenet and Bartho Smit, and others. Her exposure to the work of Gary Gordon and the First Physical Theatre Company clearly also had an influence on the style of some of her later work.
Other forms of influence derive from De Wet's close working relations with her publishers (e.g. Marietjie Coetzee and HAUM Literary in South Africa; Gordon Dickerson and Oberon Books in London) and a number of talented directors, including Denys Webb, Lucille Gillwald, Lindsay Reardon, Gary Gordon, Steven Stead and director/designer Marthinus Basson.
This list includes all the published and unpublished play texts found and identified to date. They are listed under the original title (with date of first production in brackets, with the titles of any translations). Only in the case where an English or Afrikaans version is a significant adaptation and can be considered a new text, is it listed separately.
A number of the texts were written for and/or utilized by the First Physical Theatre Company, and are marked with an asterisk*. The list also includes two bilingual tributes for De Wet, compiled and performed by the Drama Departments of Stellenbosch University (1995) and Rhodes University (2013) respectively (marked with a double asterisk**).
For details of each individual work and the various productions and editions, click on the appropriate link below
In a Different Light (1989)
A Worm in the Bud (1990).
The Unspeakable Story* (1995)
Bessie's Head* (2000)
On the Lake* (2001)
lake…beneath the surface* (2001)
Notes for the Curious (2003)
Blou Uur (2008)
Die See (2011)
Published collections containing plays by De Wet
Vrystaat Trilogie (“Free State Trilogy”, 1991)
Trits: Mis, Mirakel en Drif (1993)
Drama for a New South Africa (1999)
De Wet: Plays One (2000)
De Wet: A Russian Trilogy (2002)
The Art of Physical Intelligence Volume 1: "Experiments in Physical Theatre". (2002).
De Wet: Plays Two (2005)
De Wet: Two Plays (2007)
In 1982 de wet and her husband moved to Grahamstown, where she initially worked in the English department, before joining the drama department at Rhodes University. She taught there for more than 20 years, later being made a professor, and retiring in 2007.
Awards and tributes
De Wet was the first playwright, and only the second author, to win the prestigious Hertzog Prize twice in a row for the same medium (1993, 1996).
In April 2013 the Rhodes University Drama Department devised a stage production entitled Drifting, performed as tribute to the playwright at the Rhodes Theatre during Graduation on 4, 6 and 9 April 2013 at 7:00pm. Similar tributes were held at other Universities in South Africa.
The Hoër Meisieskool Oranje in Bloemfontein named their annual Drama festival after Reza de Wet.
Greg Homann. 2015. "Emerging Playwrights and Significant Plays". In: Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Greg Homann (editors). The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary South African Theatre. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Shirley Johnston. 2018. "Drifte - Discovering the Secrets of Reza de Wet’s Heart". (Draft manuscript, courtesy of the author.)
Marisa Keuris. 2018. Die spore van ouer Afrikaanse dramaturge en skrywers in Reza de Wet se Drif" (Draft manuscript, courtesy of the author)
Juanita Praeg. 2018. "Drifting: Reminiscing. Remembering. Reinventing. Reza" (Draft manuscript, courtesy of the author.)
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