John Slemon obituary: Former Abbey Theatre manager opened up arts in South Africa

Lively and feisty figure often ruffled the feathers of those in authority

John Slemon Born: July 2nd, 1937. Died: July 24th, 2021. John Slemon, the Irish-born director of the influential Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa has died. Slemon, who was manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the early 1970s, emigrated to South Africa in 1976 and remained there for the rest of his life.

During his time as director at the Baxter Theatre, he opened up the stage to actors of all colours, directors and musicians with a varied programme of classical theatre, musicals, dance and new experimental work. The theatre, which was part of the University of Cape Town, opened in August 1977 with a mixed race cast performing Candide which was not permitted by the Apartheid laws at the time. Slemon continued to defy Apartheid laws throughout its regime. In 1987, Slemon received the Fleur du Cap lifetime achievement award and in 1996, he won the Moyra Fine award for his contribution to the theatrical life of South Africa.

Keen to understand South Africa right from when he first arrived, Slemon asked the taxi driver on his journey from the airport what all the tin houses along the freeway were. When he was told it was a township which wouldn't be safe to visit (it was just after the Soweto Uprising on June 16th, 1976 where many students were shot and killed), he immediately wanted to go there. His brief visit ended when he was hit by a brick on the back of the head. "Now, I feel at home," he said. And there began his empathy with black South Africans' desire to overthrow an oppressive government.

A lively, feisty figure, Slemon often ruffled the feathers of those in authority. As newly appointed general manager of the soon-to-be-built theatre, he changed the architects’ design replacing a rooftop restaurant with a studio theatre for new and experimental work and adding rehearsal rooms.

Slemon made it his business to keep up to speed with what was happening politically in the country and how it affected, or should be reflected, in South African theatre. With productions such as District Six The Musical by David Kramer and Taliep Petersen, the Baxter Theatre brought audiences to the experiences of the 60,000 people (many of whom were former slaves and Muslim immigrants) who were forcibly moved from the inner city slum to townships in the 1970s during the Apartheid regime.

The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie made headlines across the world in 1985 (and walkouts in South Africa itself) when black South African actor, John Kani kissed the white Afrikaner actress, Sandra Prinsloo. Sex between different races was still a criminal offence in South Africa at the time but the fact that the play wasn’t closed down was a sign that Apartheid’s grip was loosening. A Baxter Theatre touring production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with John Kani and Winston Ntshona a few years earlier also had strong political intonations.

Opened its doors

Slemon was first appointed as general manager when the Baxter Theatre Centre opened its doors on August 1st, 1977. He went on to work as director from 1986 to his retirement in the late 1990s, following a stroke. During that time, he produced more than 200 works and the theatre itself had more than 1,000 performances of theatre, musicals, opera, ballet with 40,000 patrons each year. Ryno de Jager, maintenance manager during Slemon’s time at the helm, remembers how Slemon was committed to the theatre never going dark. “When I requested time to do maintenance in the building, he would always say, ‘There is no fockin’ play called maintenance, Ryno’.”

Affectionately referred to by some as Slemonski (in homage to the great Russian theatre character actor and theatre director, Konstantin Stanislavski), colleagues remember him as a gentle man hidden inside a strict disciplinarian.

“I found that his bark was much worse than his bite and whist I was often at the receiving end of his ire, I never felt intimidated by him. We became the best of friends as well as colleagues,” said Gillian Lindner, former marketing and PR manager at the Baxter. Never afraid to express his opinions, he often clashed with suggestions for new shows but admitted he was wrong when such productions went on to have sellout runs.

John Slemon was born in Bandon, Co Cork but the family moved to Dublin when he was 11. He went to St Vincent’s Christian Brothers school in Glasnevin and worked in CIÉ and the ESB before starting at the bottom in the Abbey Theatre and working his way up to manager. His colleagues from the Abbey remember him as energetic, enthusiastic and encouraging and how with then artistic director, Lelia Doolan, he developed the Young Abbey theatre in education a full-time part of the Abbey Theatre’s programming.

Married to Maura (née Farrell), the couple had four children, the last of whom was born in South Africa. Maura, who was an artist and ceramicist, died in 2009 but three of his four adult children continue to live in Cape Town. Deirdre is a teacher, writer and linguist; Donal an opera singer who works in computers; and Maeve works in art production in the film industry. Sean, a sculptor, lives in New York.

Following his retirement, Slemon continued to support local theatre, giving advice on scripts and production to writers. He loved poetry and music and read and spoke Irish with considerable fluency. A lapsed Catholic, he found comfort in Buddhism in later life and studied Sanskrit and astronomy. Although he rarely returned to Ireland, Slemon maintained a strong emotional bond with the country and his relatives here.

John Slemon is survived by his children, Deirdre, Donal, Maeve and Sean, four grandchildren and his sister, Mary. His wife, Maura and his sister, Nuala predeceased him in 2009.