Grande dame of theatre

2011-07-20 00:00

“ALL the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

William Shakespeare’s poetic words from As You Like It could have been written with Vera Clare — or as most Maritzburgers will remember her, Vera Goodenough — in mind.

In a career which has spanned over 60 years, the women dubbed “Pietermaritzburg’s favourite actress” captivated audiences with roles ranging from the formidable Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest, to the redoubtable Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias, and the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.

Clare was captivated by the footlights from an early age, having watched her maternal grandparents in Vaudeville as a child. But it was a petrol shortage in her native Britain that finally pushed her into acting at the age of 18.

In an article in The Natal Witness, published in February 1980, she recalled: “There was a call to conserve fuel, so I had to stay at home and seek entertainment within the confines of Norwich, and that led ultimately to me applying for an audition for the Maddermarket Theatre, a terrifying mecca of the classical theatre, where people like George Bernard Shaw, Tyrone Guthrie and Sir Barry Jackson were wont to pop in.”

She also recalled that her training was rigid and tortuous, and that no one in the company spoke to her for about a year. It made her determined to be word perfect and tough on her acting colleagues in every play she took on.

In an interview with the Mercury’s Billy Suter she said: “Today young actors are not taught breath control and many are mostly inaudible on a large stage, because they are not taught projection. In other words, they come out of drama school without the necessary tools of the trade. They are uninhibited which is good. But I belong to the old English tradition of style and the spoken word, distinctly delivered.”

After several years of doing crowd work in Shakespeare and other classics, playing ladies and maids, Clare was finally considered good enough to play the role of Raina in Shaw’s comedy Arms and the Man. It was to be the first of many leading roles.

Others included the queen in The Eagle Has Two Heads, the title role in St Joan, as well as Lysistrata, Medea, Amanda in Private Lives and Helen in Look Back in Anger.

She also starred in the Playboy of the Western World, The Provoked Wife, Misery Me and a Norwich Festival production of the White Devil, and had many offers to appear farther afield, particularly after her performance in The Eagle Has Two Heads. But being a fifties’ housewife and mother of three, she put her home and family first, telling The Natal Witness: “I declined them all — even appearing in Roots in the West End. What madness!”

In 1967, Clare and her then husband, Max Goodenough, and their three children, Simon, Clare and Carl, immigrated to Cape Town. Within months the lure of the stage saw her joining Capab (the Cape Provincial Arts Board), and securing the title role in Candida, which tells the story of a woman who is happily married to a minister of religion and then finds herself forced to choose between her husband and the young poet, Marchbanks.

Writing in the Cape Times after seeing her performance, Terry Herbst said: “Vera Goodenough gives a deep dignity and spirit to the central role, around which the action revolves. She moves with an elegant grace and brings with her an aura of middle-class sophistication and sympathy that fits her mother-image like a well-laundered glove.”

Cape Town was to prove a temporary abode, however, and three years later the Goodenoughs moved to Pietermaritzburg; where Clare soon became a household name performing in a host of productions with the Natal Society Drama Group at the Cygnet Theatre, the Rowe Theatre and later the Hexagon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She also formed the Company of Three with David Robinson and Alan Thistle.

Among the many productions she starred in were: Noel Coward’s Private Lives; James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, a performance which was described by Natal Witness reviewer Michael Moon as “a strident queen, full of vituperation and calculation, but showing glimpses of compassion and genuine love”; Lloyd George was my Father (Douglas Home); Peter Shaffer’s Equus, directed by Murray McGibbon; The Night Is My Enemy (Fred Carmichael); The Kingfisher (William Douglas Home); Noel Coward’s Still Life; Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads with Greig Coetzee; and The Country Wife, a Restoration comedy by William Wycherley, which marked the official opening of the Hexagon Theatre complex at UKZN.

Clare frequently “retired from the boards”, but was tempted to return by, among others, Garth Anderson, who cast her as Olive Schreiner in The Story of an African Farm.

In the early nineties, she moved to Durban and quickly established herself as a regular cast member in numerous KickstArt Theatre Company productions, among them Steel Magnolias, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dangerous Liaisons, and Keely and Du. She also appeared in Well, I Never, a programme of short stories by William Somerset Maugham, Guy de Maupassant and Hector Hugh Munro (also known as Saki) with Anderson; and in My Fair Lady, directed by Steven Stead at the Playhouse, a performance which saw her win a Durban Theatre Award in 2006/07 for best supporting actress in a musical or music revue.

Other awards which came her way included: a Durban FNB Vita Regional Theatre award in 2001/02 for best performance in a comedy by a female for The Importance of Being Earnest; a Durban FNB Vita Regional Theatre award in 2001/02 for best lead actress for Keely and Du; and a Durban Theatre Award in 2002/03 for best supporting actress in a drama for Steel Magnolias.

Clare did not, however, take her talent for granted and while she was in Grahamstown to perform in Janet van Eeden’s A Savage From The Colonies in 2001, she told the Cue newspaper: “All roles are difficult. Nothing is easy. You have to give your whole soul to the part, whether it’s comedy or drama.”

Away from the stage, she was a dedicated supporter of Tape Aids for the Blind, for whom she read many books, and of Hospice.

Asked to describe her mother, her daughter, Clare McCartney, said: “She hated sport — but it was funny, during last year’s Football World Cup she watched every match.

“She also took a great interest in up-and- coming actors and was happy to give them advice, but she didn’t like sloppy presentation and diction, and would go over and over scenes until they were perfect. She also had to hold herself back to stop herself from directing when someone else was in charge.

“My brother and I believe that if she hadn’t been a fifties’ housewife, she would have had international acclaim.”

As for the highlight of her life, well that was undoubtedly meeting Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Clare was invited to read a programme of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a private home in Sandringham with Carl Dolmesh, the Elizabethan musician providing the relevant music. In an interview with Megan Sherriffs in The Witness, Clare said of the event: “We were given very little time to prepare, but it went well and afterwards I sat and had tea with her.”

Clare was truly a grand dame of the KwaZulu-Natal theatre scene, an actress with a capital A, who, as Robinson said at her funeral in Durban last week, delivered 83 years of substance, colour and passion.

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