Opening doors: Leila Henriques as Florence Phillips, who dared to pursue her dreams at a time when women were expected to be submissive. Picture: GREG HOMANN
Opening doors: Leila Henriques as Florence Phillips, who dared to pursue her dreams at a time when women were expected to be submissive. Picture: GREG HOMANN

Florence Phillips, who was instrumental in establishing the Johannesburg Art Gallery, is being brought back to life in a one-woman play.

Directed by Greg Homann, written by Myer Taub and performed by Leila Henriques in her first solo show, the play, Florence, is not an easy premise. But Homann, who lectures and writes about theatre, understands what he does best.

Henriques has a spirited take on what she describes as an ambitious piece. "I have to focus and, following performances, I feel I have to lie down in a darkened room," she says.

Homann suspects that the art cognoscenti, heritage aficionados and people working for Hollard Life will know who Lady Phillips was. "The Hollard Life offices are built around the original Phillips house, which is still in use," he says.

Dorothea Sarah Florence Alexandra, Lady Phillips (1863-1940) was married to Sir Lionel Phillips, a mining magnate and politician. She was commonly known by one of her middle names, Florence.

Following several interventions around the art gallery, one including a skateboard performance-art piece that is referenced in the play, Taub engages with questions featuring the gallery as a centrepiece. The story is told playfully while experimenting with time, place and language to explore the contemporary moment.

The monologue Taub initially wrote evolved into a discussion between a disgruntled actress and a playwright about a new work in which he places Phillips as a ghost at the Joubert Park fence outside the gallery. While considering whether she will play the role, the actress imagines what it would mean to portray a dead white colonial figure nowadays. The melange of issues this raises almost trip over each other, making this a fascinating piece of theatre.

Phillips is perhaps less celebrated nowadays than expected, yet her philanthropic nature endeared her in her time to artists and the public. She was formidable, says Henriques, who plays her with bravado and dexterity as she switches between the fiery Florence and the demanding actress.

This allows a discussion on the meaning of art and its relevance, with special focus on the fence that divorces the art gallery from its immediate surrounds. Joubert Park is a base for the homeless and the poor, not a site to be visited by the upper-class art clique.

"We play with the fences in our lives and how we think about our identity," explains Homann, who with his set designer, sculptor Richard Ford, used this metaphor effectively.

Florence was a woman of exceptional strength, passion and character. She promoted and celebrated local and international artists and displayed their work in what was once a noted building.

She had the money to follow her dreams, but the City of Joburg neglected her dream so severely that the gallery had to be closed after a flood.

Henriques explores all her strengths as a performer. Taub and Homann have thrown huge challenges at her, but she’s up for it. Homann says it has been a joyous collaboration — and it shows.

Taub says the story of Johannesburg’s early pioneers can perhaps be used creatively to engage and inspire the public — including the next generation of woman pioneers — and can secure a favourable future for the art gallery.

"I wanted to give the audience anchors," Homann says, referring to his emphasis on the love story as well as the gallery. "I didn’t want it to feel too fragmented. It’s about finding and determining the access for the audience."

With a project this complicated, the production doesn’t have to be completely successful, he argues, but the trio most invested in this play are giving their best to make it happen. Henriques captures the power of this extraordinary woman who stepped out of her comfort zone at a time when it was unheard of for women to follow their dreams, and opened a world to everyone around her.

The loop of time in the telling of the story portrays fragmentation and fluidity.

"That’s the key," says Homann, who describes the play as contradictory, complex and messy.

"We’re dealing with memory and how we think of time — moving forward and backwards," he says.

This play differs from anything that has been on stage in SA recently. It opens vistas in unexpected ways and takes the audience to places they weren’t intending to go. It’s an exciting way to understand the world — especially the confrontational one nowadays.

Florence is at the Market’s Barney Simon Theatre in Newtown until August 26.