Scene It: 'Ruth First', a showcase of conscience and conviction

August 2, 2018

2016 saw actor and designer, Marcel Meyer, make his directorial debut with the staging of Ruth Fisrt: 117 Days that year at the National Arts Festival. This play has been described by reviewers, such as John Maytham, as an immaculately staged, well-controlled, and thoughtful theatrical production. It now makes a Cape Town turn at the Artscape Arena for a very short run until 4 August 2018.


Ruth First was one of the women who marched to protest the pass laws on 9 AUGUST 1956. She was a strong female voice who participated in the revolutionary Lilliesleaf meetings (along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Rusty Bernstein, Harold Wolpe, and Denis Goldberg) before the Lilliesleaf raid on 11 July 1963, which led to the arrest of 19 ANC members. The 19 were initially detained under the Ninety-Day Act to give the security police time to continue their investigation to gather evidence, while simultaneously delaying their court appearances. This strategy saw 10 of the 19 accused as defendants in the subsequent Rivonia Trial. On 9 AUGUST 1963, Ruth First was also incarcerated under the same Ninety-Day Act. During her detention she withstood physiological torture at the hands of her interrogators —a process that saw some activists tormented to such a degree that they took their own lives to ‘escape’ the cruelty of it all. Ruth First was released after her first 90 days, but immediately detained again before she could even see a clear blue sky unobstructed by barbed wire. When eventually released after 117 days (her interrogators having failed in their attempts to break her down and turn witness against the cause), she went into exile in 1964. In exile, she published a book about her time in prison, while still continuing her liberation work from abroad. On 17 AUGUST 1982, Ruth First was assassinated by means of a letter bomb sent to her by the South African Security Police. During the month of AUGUST 2018 —very fittingly a month celebrating the strong women of South Africa— the dramatisation of her book 117 Days is brought to the Artscape Arena by Abrahmse & Meyer Productions, with Jackie Rens playing the role of Ruth First, as part of the Artscape’s 12th Annual Women & Humanity Arts Festival… to remind audiences that we must never stop appreciating and valuing the democracy and the free society that we live in, because many paid with their own freedom and lives for it.

Though the message itself is an important one, the poignant play also uses clear design elements as tools with which to transfer First's experiences from the pages of SA's history to the stage. When you walk into the Artscape Arena —with Rens already on stage as First, dramatically donning sunglasses that gives you a sense of why First was called the ‘stylish revolutionary’— the set is striking in its austerity. The set design by Meyer lends itself to becoming the alternating prison cells First called ‘home’ for 117 days. Suspended above her in steel cages are the faces of the Rivonia Trial defendants... symbolically hovering over her head as powerful reminder that much of the evidence that was used to prosecute political activists were gathered by the security police by means of brutal interrogation under the Ninety-Day Act. First, ever aware and supportive of the principles of social justice, freedom, equality, and human dignity for which these activists (including herself) were fighting, stayed true to her conscience and the cause by withstanding all attempts by the security police to use her against her fellow freedom fighters.


It is this perseverance as personality trait that runs throughout the stage adaptation as focal points carefully selected from her book. Many remember and describe Ruth First (or Mrs Slovo as the apartheid security police so chauvinistically referred to her to strip her of her own sense of self) as an activist, academic, and journalist. Addressing the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid in London on 13 April 1964, she however simply referred to herself as a ‘political worker’. It is that political-worker perspective that Jackie Rens channels in her performance in Ruth First: 117 Days; a performance that shows First as one that survives her subfusc situation by seeing the repetitiveness of it all as an opportunity for daily individual resistance that ultimately aided the bigger revolutionary movement.

Although one may describe the monologue as monotonous at times, that —when viewed along with the effects of the striking lighting design by Faheem Bardien and the appropriately unnerving soundscape by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder— gives you a sense (though in no means comparative in reality-degree) of the agitation and distress that isolation brings with it: every sound and movement in the shadows are heightened and almost excruciatingly accentuated to reveal the slow passage of time. Because of this theatrical representation of incarceration, the references to the small things that kept First going are dramatically accentuated when viewed against the starkness of the everyday tonelessness. Some of these that stand out are the messages left on the her cell wall by ‘ghosts’ that inhabited her 'home' before her, a brief visit by her mother and daughters, and snippets of news that reached her as sugar wrappers or through unknowingly well-positioned newspaper vendors outside the prison, all helping her to hold onto the dream of freedom. 


The play doesn’t only show First as a determined activist set in her resolve to withstand the torture of her 117 day isolation. It also shows her as a person within the spectrum of doubts and fears; one who was forced to retreat into the darkest of corners by the cruelty of others, as she also had a failed suicide attempt while detained. However, after knocking on the door of death, being denied entry, and returning to purgatory,  she rediscovered her strength to once again resist injustice as the stylish revolutionary that today still reminds us why August is such an important month in South Africa’s history.


You have until 4 August 2018 to glimpse the strength and conviction of the stylish revolutionary in Ruth First: 117 Days at the Artscape Arena, with tickets available through Computicket.


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