Q&A with Danieyella Rodin

Danieyella Rodin is set to star in the new South African play, White Elephant, opening at the Alexander Bar Theatre. We chatted to her about the play and her collaborators.

Q1: Tell us a bit about the story of White Elephant.

When Issy arrives at her family flat in the dead of night, having run away from her abusive husband, she expects to return to the benefits of home: familiar objects, love and support for her fledgling business enterprise. However, things have changed – the house is nearly empty, and Ma is in a strange mood. The old fault lines in their relationship quickly reopen and, fuelled by a night of excess, the two are forced, finally, to confront the reality of their family’s situation. White Elephant, an urban South African gothic tale told by an award-winning team, is a funny, shocking insight into a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship; a study of decaying decadence and the lengths people will go to protect the last vestiges of their status.

Q2: How did you approach your character?

Issy is like a few different people I have known in my life, and so I have always felt very close to her in that way. But memory is tricky and we often can only remember the most memorable parts of people – the really bad or good parts – not always the everyday stuff. And obviously theatre isn’t life. It’s the good and the bad and the mundane all truncated into an hour. So for me, it has been like colouring in a picture I had in my mind already. Sometimes I’ve had to erase everything I thought I knew about these people Issy reminds me of, and start again. But even through that, I have always had these real people to anchor me in my exploration, and to help me pick the colours. Finding the beauty and the strength in her vulnerability – even in the precarious situation she finds herself in. That has been very important. Unlike other characters I have played before, I was involved in creating Issy on the page. So really my work has been about pushing beyond the character I originally thought we were creating, going deeper, and always being willing to try something new, to find something new.

Q3: Who do you think would love this play?

If you are someone with a slightly darker sensibility you should enjoy the black comedy in White Elephant. If you’re a Sam Shepard fan, or enjoyed the bizarre world of the documentary Grey Gardens, then you will enjoy our show. Or if you’re interested in a new South African writer, who has an ear for South African dialogue, then you will enjoy this show. If you are interested in a twisted mother-daughter tale, then this show is for you. Finally, if you are a fan of Bo Petersen’s – it’s her swansong before she jets off to far-off lands at the end of the year – come say good-bye to this legendary, prolific and wonderful South African performer.

Q4: How was your experience of working with your collaborators for this project?

I have worked with all of the collaborators before and so we have been excited from the outset to work together. It has been every bit as fruitful and enjoyable to create this work together as we knew it would be. I knew I wanted to create a mother-daughter show and had just become semi-obsessed with the documentary film Grey Gardens, and so I spoke with Dave Cornwell who was gearing up towards the release of his debut novel (Like It Matters). I wanted to create a work with a writer because I already had some ideas about the character I wanted to play. Dave said he would be interested in trying his hand at a playtext and that was where it all began.

Bo Petersen is a good friend of mine and I knew we would work and play well together. So when she said she would be interested in creating this show with Dave and I, we were just thrilled! Bo Petersen is wonderful to collaborate with – she doesn’t hold back anything. She is fully present and excited by the creative process, and thrives off collaborating.

Finally, we knew the writing, the aesthetic and performances would be rounded off beautifully by Philip Rademeyer’s unique and poetic sensibility. So when he came on board we were over the moon. Every person has brought their lives, their stories and their hearts into this play. It has been a truly wonderful collaboration, from the beginning in January when Dave, Bo and I met for the first time to begin discussing the kind of characters we wanted to play and the type of narrative we wanted to tell, to April when we had a bulk of the first draft and we had a week of rehearsals with Philip to feel it out of the floor, to now – getting down to the nitty-gritty of it all and hitting the boards at Alexander Bar Theatre.

White Elephant runs from 21 November to 3 December. You can book your tickets here.

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