SCENE IT: Reflecting on the courage of The Unlikely Secret Agent

Barbara Loots

The Drama Factory, in Somerset West, is currently home to the play, THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT, created by writer, actor and director Paul du Toit.

THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT is based on, and also takes its title from, the book by Ronnie Kasrils, in which he recalls his wife Eleanor’s story of bravery and resilience, reflecting on her time of interrogation under the 90-Day Detention Act in the 1960s.


During that time, South Africa saw an increase in instances of political sabotage and riots, as protest against the Apartheid regime were on the rise. With the couple labelled as ‘terrorists’ by the Security Police, they detained Eleanor in an attempt to get information as to the whereabouts of her ‘Jew-boyfriend’. This moment is the axis around which the play turns.


The play first introduces you to the couple during the early stages of their romance: reflecting awkward, starry-eyed moments between Eleanor and Ronnie, with Paul du Toit as Ronnie giving off a How I Met Your Mother Ted Mosby air as he blurts out ‘I think I love you’ at the most random of moments. These initial scenes one appreciates, knowing how their lives will be turned upside down as the play unfolds.


In the first part of the play, we see how Ronnie opens Eleanor’s eyes to the reality of the times, with her focus shifting from part-time liberal to someone with a clear understanding of the previously unnoticed undercurrent of her country. She evolves from ‘white, middle class, single mother writing sarcastic letters’ to a woman with a clear purpose and world view. She ultimately finds her struggle-role by facilitating covert-op book-swaps: operating from her mother’s bookshop, she orders Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, knowing it will soon to be banned, and distributes it to underground ANC operatives.


We also see how Eleanor assists Ronnie and his comrades in setting up certain bomb strikes, one which notably led to the complete electricity blackout of the then Natal Province. Throughout this, Erika Marais as Eleanor gives a modest performance as she plays into the role of the unassuming bookstore assistant who fools the Security Police, at least for a while, until someone in the underground betrays them. This betrayal leads to Eleanor’s arrest in the bookstore: she is taken away to go tell ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but…’, as one of the more triggered officers, Grobbler (portrayed by Gideon Lombard), helps drag her away while adding, ‘I will break you, or hang you’.


During Eleanor's interrogation, which becomes the focal point in the second part of the play, Lombard truly demands your attention as he plays into a character representing the worst of the Security Police’s brutal mind-set. His performance gives the audience insight into the unmeasurable cruelty of the type of person who relished in all the power and unaccountability that came with the ruthless implementation of the infamous 90-Day Detention Act.


There is also striking character juxtaposition at play as Sandu Shandu and Ntlanhla Kutu jump from playing security Police officers —who aid in concealing Grobbler’s torturous ways— to their roles as Doctor and Cleaner respectively —the latter characters providing aid to Eleanor in her time in the psychiatric facility as a strategy to get her out of the clutches of Grobbler and his cohorts.


The play does not follow a linear timeline, but instead switches between the time when Eleanor met Ronnie, her interrogation/detainment, and her time (and ultimate escape) from the psychiatric institution where she found shelter from the ‘breaking’-tactics employed by the Security Police. To help the audience follow these jumps in time, Du Toit uses dialogue repetition as an aid to try and give a cohesive feel to the staging. Another reason for the play continuously jumping from various scenes back to the interrogation room, is Du Toit’s consideration that ‘if something like that happens to [someone], a part of them will never leave the room’. So viewed, the break in time them also speaks to attempts to break the person.


The required tone shifts in the play are clearly noticeable, though there are some key moments that could benefit from a little more verve to further heighten tension to create a starker contrast between the moments where you should be holding your breath along with Eleanor and the ones that allow for exhaling. Ultimately, the play (which embraces the charisma of power-to-the-cause) gives an insightful and thoughtful glimpse into the story of an extraordinary woman, willing to put the struggle of others before her own survival.


Reflecting on the play in a Q&A session after one of the first-run opening performances, Ronnie Kasrils applauded the cast for bringing life to the story —this being the first time he has allowed any such portrayal. When asked what he would change or add to the play as staged, his response was a resounding, ‘nothing’.


Du Toit aptly describes the play as a story about principle and integrity, about ‘someone having the guts to follow their convictions’, leaving one to ask how you would act if placed in a position to choose between your own safety and the right thing to do. It is for that reason that he, when writing the play, decided to put the word ‘is it worth it’ in the mouth of Steenkamp (played by Shandu), as one of Eleanor’s interrogators.


Shandu, having not known Eleanor’s story before joining the cast, says he sees the play as a story that calls on people to understand the responsibility privilege can play when it comes to fighting for what is right. For him, highlighting Eleanor’s courage through this play is important when viewed within the context of South Africa’s current fight against gender-based violence when considering the sexual assault Eleanor suffered during her detention.


Reflecting on this aspect of the ensemble-driven play, Kasrils described the production as a story about a generation who gave their all, commenting that ‘this is what the country needs to be reminded of.’


THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT runs at The Drama Factory from 17 - 22 August. It carries an age restriction of PG14 with warnings of language, violence and simulations of gender-based violence. The production also makes use of light smoke. Lighting design is by Daniel Galloway with sound design by Jahn Beukes. The run time of this drama is 120 minutes with a 15-minute interval.