Janet Suzman

Dame Janet Suzman, DBE (born 9 February 1939) is a South African/British actress who enjoyed a successful early career in the Royal Shakespeare Company, later replaying many Shakespearean roles, among others, on TV. In her first film, Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), her performance as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna earned her several honours, including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Janet Suzman

Born (1939-02-09) 9 February 1939
OccupationActress, director
Trevor Nunn
(m. 1969; div. 1986)

Suzman later starred in a wide range of classical and modern drama as well as directing many productions, both in Britain and South Africa. She is a niece of Helen Suzman, South African politician and anti-apartheid campaigner. Suzman herself appeared in a film that looked closely at the apartheid issue, A Dry White Season (1989).

Early life

Janet Suzman was born in Johannesburg to a Jewish family, the daughter of Betty (née Sonnenberg) and Saul Suzman, a wealthy tobacco importer.[1][2]

Her grandfather, Max Sonnenberg, was a member of the South African parliament, and she is a niece of the late civil rights/anti-apartheid campaigner, Helen Suzman.[3] Suzman was educated at the independent school Kingsmead College, Johannesburg, and at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she studied English and French. She moved to London in 1959.

Stage career

After training for the stage at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art Suzman made her debut as Liz in Billy Liar at the Tower Theatre, Ipswich, in 1962. She became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963 and started her career there as Joan of Arc in The Wars of The Roses (1962–64). The RSC gave her the opportunity to play many of the Shakespearean heroines, including Rosaline in Love's Labour's Lost, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Ophelia in Hamlet, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus and her Cleopatra, magisterial, ardent and seductive, in 1973, about which critics raved, and which is said to be a definitive performance. (A 1974 ITC production, broadcast in the UK and the US, captured her performance for television audiences.) Although her stage appearances tended to run naturally towards Shakespeare and the classics, including Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Marlowe, Racine, Gorky and Brecht, she also appeared in plays by Genet, Pinter, Ronald Harwood, Nicholson, Albee and others.

Films and TV

She appeared in many British television drama productions in the 1960s and early 1970s, including Saint Joan (1968), The Three Sisters (1970), Macbeth (1970), Hedda Gabler (1972), Twelfth Night (1973), as Hilda Lessways in Clayhanger (1976), as Lady Mountbatten in Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy (1985) and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986). Her first film role was in Nicholas and Alexandra (1972), and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for her portrayal of the Empress Alexandra. This was followed by A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972) opposite Alan Bates. In addition to the 1974 television version of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, she also appeared as "Frosine" in the BBC's Theatre Night 1988 production of The Miser opposite Nigel Hawthorne as "Harpagon" and Jim Broadbent as "Maitre Jacques". Another role was that of Frieda Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981).

She has made few films since, the best-known being Don Siegel's The Black Windmill (1974), Nijinsky (1980), Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Federico Fellini's E la Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On 1983), A Dry White Season (1989) with Marlon Brando and Nuns on the Run (1990; a rare comedic role).

Later years

In her native South Africa she directed Othello, which was also televised, and Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (renamed The Good Woman of Sharpeville) both at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. She also toured her modern adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard - a South African response entitled The Free State. She wrote, starred in and directed this piece with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Other productions with Suzman as director included A Dream of People at the RSC, The Cruel Grasp at the Edinburgh Festival, Feydeau's No Flies on Mr Hunter (Chelsea Centre, 1992), Death of a Salesman (Theatr Clwyd, 1993), and Pam Gems's The Snow Palace (Tour and Tricycle Theatre, 1998).

Later activities

In 2002 she returned to the RSC to perform in a new version of The Hollow Crown with Sir Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Sir Derek Jacobi. In 2005 she appeared in the West End in a revival of Brian Clark's 1978 play Whose Life Is It Anyway? starring Kim Cattrall. In 2006 she directed Hamlet and in 2007 she played Volumnia in Coriolanus in Stratford-upon-Avon, for which she received excellent notices. In 2010 she appeared in Dream of the Dog, a new South African play, at the Finborough Theatre, London, which subsequently transferred to the West End. Suzman wrote Acting With Shakespeare: Three Comedies, a book based on a series of acting master classes.

Personal life

Her marriage (1969–86) to director Trevor Nunn ended in divorce; they have one son, Joshua.

Suzman is a patron of Dignity in Dying and campaigns for a change in the law on assisted dying.[4]


Suzman was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to drama.[5][6] Her aunt, Helen Suzman, was appointed Honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 for her anti-apartheid activism.

Janet Suzman holds Honorary D.Litt. degrees from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, London (QMW), Southampton, Middlesex, Kingston, Cape Town University Edge Hill University and Buckingham University. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, and was awarded the Pragnell Award for lifetime services to Shakespeare in 2012. She is a patron of the London International Festival of Theatre,[7]


1964 Festival (TV series) Luciana episode: The Comedy of Errors
1965 The Wars of the Roses (TV miniseries) Lady Anne/Joan la Pucelle chapter: Richard III
chapter: Henry VI
1966 Lord Raingo (TV series) Delphine episode: Fear
episode: Doubts
episode Power
episode: The Offer
1966 Theatre 625 (TV series) Edith Swan-Neck/Mary episode: The Family Reunion
episode: Conquest: The Leopard and the Dragon
episode: Conquest: The Encounter
1970 Solo (TV series) Charlotte Brontë episode: Janet Suzman as Charlotte Brontë
1971 Nicholas and Alexandra Alexandra Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year - Actress
1972 A Day in the Death of Joe Egg Sheila Nominated—National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (4th place)
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (3rd place)
1968–1972 BBC Play of the Month (TV series) Hedda Gabler
Lady Macbeth
Joan of Arc
Nominated—British Academy Television Award for Best Actress
episode: Hedda Gabler
episode: Macbeth
episode: The Three Sisters
episode: St. Joan
1974 The Black Windmill Alex Tarrant
1974 Antony and Cleopatra (TV film) Cleopatra Nominated—British Academy Television Award for Best Actress
1976 Clayhanger (TV series) Hilda Lessways/Hilda Clayhanger
1976 Voyage of the Damned Leni Strauss
1979 The House on Garibaldi Street (TV film) Hedda
1980 Nijinsky Emilia Marcus
1980 Escape (TV series) Wendy Woods episode: Banned
1981 Priest of Love Frieda Lawrence
1982 The Draughtsman's Contract Virginia Herbert
1983 And the Ship Sails On Edmea Tetua
1984 The Midsummer Marriage (TV film) Sosostris
1984 The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood (TV film) Eleanor of Aquitaine
1985 Bright Smiler (TV film) Avon Eve
1986 Masterpiece Theatre: Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma
1986 The Singing Detective (TV miniseries) Nicola
1988 Theatre Night (TV series) Frosine episode: The Miser
1989 Revolutionary Witness (TV short) Theroign de Mericourt segment: The Woman
1989 A Dry White Season Susan du Toit
1989 4 Play (TV series) Judith episode: Nobody Here But Us Chickens
1990 Nuns on the Run Sister Superior
1992 Horizon (TV series) Narrator episode: Taking the Credit
1992 Leon the Pig Farmer Judith Geller
1992 The Secret Agent (TV series) Margaret, Duchess of Chester
1993 Inspector Morse (TV series) Dr Claire Brewster episode: Deadly Slumber
1997 The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (TV series) Cecily Branksome episode: Front Seat
2002 The Windsors - A Royal Family (Documentary) Narrator Originally released in 1994 by PBS, updated and re-released in 2002
2005 Hiroshima (TV film) voice
2006–2007 Trial & Retribution (TV series) Winifred Morgan QC episode: Sins of the Father
2008 The Color of Magic (TV film) Ninereeds
2010 Midsomer Murders (TV series) Lady Matilda William episode: The Sword of Guillaume
2011 Tinga Tinga Tales (TV series) Ostrich
2012 Sinbad (TV series) Grandmother/Safia episode: Homecoming
episode: Queen of the Water-Thieves
episode: Pilot
episode: The Siren
2012 Labyrinth (TV series) Esclarmonde episode: Episode No. 1.2
episode: Episode No. 1.1
2012 Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson (TV film) Readings
2013 Felix Mrs Cartwright

Reference: "Janet Suzman". IMDB. Retrieved 25 September 2013.


  1. "Janet Suzman Biography (1939-)". www.filmreference.com. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  2. "It's difficult to describe the grief", Times Online
  3. "Courage and wit that faced down apartheid", Herald Scotland
  4. "Patrons | Dignity in Dying". Dignity in Dying. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  5. "No. 59808". The London Gazette (Supplement). 11 June 2011. p. 7.
  6. "Forsyth knighthood heads honours". BBC News. 11 June 2011. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  7. "Meet The Team", LIFT. Retrieved 9 August 2016.

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