Back in 2006, a young South African theatre company was eagerly awaiting the chance to perform in Stratford-upon-Avon.

They were thrilled to be bringing their Hamlet to the home of Shakespeare.

But then a shocking, senseless tragedy struck . Brett Goldin, a 28-year-old actor, was the victim of a car-jacking in Cape Town and was shot in the head.

Dame Janet Suzman will never forget the murder, as she was directing the play.

Hamlet did indeed play the Swan Theatre in Stratford, with the cast dedicating the run to Brett.

“The show has to go on,” Janet states. “I completely understand that after Brett’s death.

“I remember, I held a meeting with this very young, traumatised company and asked them what they wanted to do, and through their tears they said ‘we have to go on’.

“It has left a ghastly scar on my soul. But as actors we use our scars, they are useful for our performances.

“Seventeen-year-old actors are so boring, they haven’t lived. The only thing they have to offer is their youth, and that doesn’t stay fascinating for long.”

Janet does, however, have high praise for the young actor in her latest play, set in South Africa and inspired by Brett’s death.

Solomon and Marion stars Janet and Khayalethu Anthony in a moving play in which she is forced to confront anew the death of her son.

Grieving Marion lives in an isolated home in South Africa, struggling to find meaning in a country that has been transformed.

Then Solomon, the grandson of her former servant, turns up saying he wants to take care of her.

A two-hander, written and directed by Lara Foot, it’s a powerful story about an unlikely friendship in a fragile, post-apartheid country.

Janet says: “What leads to a solitary, unassuagable life? There’s obviously something missing and the worst thing it can be is a child.

“The writer tells the story of a fearless old bat of a woman who refuses to be scared of life. At a certain point, I think we reach a fatalism – if something is going to happen, let it happen. That’s to be applauded.

Janet Suzman as Joan of Arc, and Donald Sinden as Richard of York, in an RSC production of Henry VI in 1963
Janet Suzman as Joan of Arc, and Donald Sinden as Richard of York, in an RSC production of Henry VI in 1963
 

“But then a stranger knocks at her door and their lives change.

“It tells the story of South Africa – two people separated by culture, colour, age and gender who become friends. It’s about this emerging democracy.

“It has got this great tragic thing inside it and it is sad – you have to bring your Kleenex! – but actually it’s a comedy. It’s a lovely play.

“To be able to move an audience, that’s theatre at its most thrilling. You don’t want to leave people indifferent, you want to make them explore their feelings.”

Janet, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra, was born in Johannesburg to a wealthy tobacco importer. Her grandfather Max Sonnenburg was a member of the South African parliament and her aunt Helen Suzman is a civil rights campaigner.

She moved to London at 20 and trained at LAMDA.

She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963, playing many heroines from Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Ophelia in Hamlet to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and an acclaimed Cleopatra.

Divorced from RSC director Trevor Nunn, they have one son, Joshua.

“South Africa has always been in my blood,” she says.

“Some ex-pats leave their country and forget it, but I have never done that. I often return as I find it absolutely fascinating .

“It’s not often you can be part of emerging civility. South Africa is now stuck in a mire of corruption, but then most countries are bloody corrupt, like Russia.”

So is Janet, 75, anything like “fearless old bat” Marion?

“Lara Foot wrote the part for me, so I suppose I must be like her, though I never analyse a character.

“I’m not scared of life. I am sorry for people who are, that’s no way to live. But then a lot of people live in a scary country.

“When I think of the violence in places like South Africa... it is awful.”

The RSC regular has also performed before at Birmingham Rep, which first staged her play The Free State in 1997. She wrote, starred in and directed the drama, taking Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and transposing it to 1990s South Africa. The Tsarist gentry became liberal Afrikaners.

“It was a huge success and I am always grateful for Birmingham for doing that. It was under Bill Alexander and I take my hat off to him.

“It was my salutation to the new South Africa.

“I have a very soft spot for the Birmingham Rep, it’s fabulous.”

Janet was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 2011 Birthday Honours but she says: “I never use my title. How stupid would you feel saying ‘Dame Janet here’? It’s just not me.

“I find it a great honour but slightly weird. Nobody understands what Dame means. I’d rather be called Sir Janet because at least everyone understands that title.”

* Solomon and Marion plays Birmingham Rep from October 16 - November 1. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk