Born in Johannesburg to a Jewish family, the niece of civil rights/anti-apartheid campaigner, Helen Suzman, she was educated at Kingsmead College, Johannesburg, and at the University of the Witwatersrand where she studied English and French. She moved to London in 1959.
After training for the stage at LAMDA, Suzman made her debut as Liz in Billy Liar at the Tower Theatre, Ipswich in 1962. She then 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 a notable Cleopatra in 1973. 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, Brecht, she has also appeared in plays by Genet, Pinter, Ronald Harwood, Nicholson, Albee and others.
She appeared in many British television drama productions in the 1960s and early 1970s, including Saint Joan (1968), Three Sisters (1969), Macbeth (1970), Hedda Gabler (1972), Twelfth Night (1973), and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986). Her first film role was in 1971, in Nicholas and Alexandra, 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.
Janet Suzman (far right) as she appears in the film Nicholas and Alexandra with Michael Jayston and Roderic Noble
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), A Dry White Season, (1989) with Marlon Brando, Federico Fellini's E la Nave Va (1989), Nuns on the Run (1990), a rare comedy performance.
Back in her native South Africa, she has directed Othello, which was also televised, and Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (renamed The Good Woman of Sharksville) both at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. She has also recently 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 include 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 Clywd, 1993); and Pam Gems's The Snow Palace (Tour and Tricycle Theatre, 1998).
In 2002, she returned to the RSC to perform in a new version of The Hollow Crown with Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and 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 is scheduled to play Volumnia in Coriolanus in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Suzman is the author of Acting With Shakespeare: Three Comedies, a book based on a series of acting master classes.
She holds Honorary D.Litt. degrees from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, London (QMW), Southampton, Middlesex and Kingston.
Her marriage (1969) to director Trevor Nunn, which ended in divorce (1986), was a famous theatrical alliance.