Review: The Unlikely Secret Agent – South African play evoking Apartheid struggle era in the 1960s- is a powerful and immersive dramatic experience

The Unlikely Secret Agent

When: October 20 to 29 , 2022 (except Monday October 24)
Where: Baxter Golden Arrow Studio
Times: Evening performances at 8pm. Matinees – Saturday  October 22 and 29 at 2pm and on Sunday October 23 at 3pm

Cast: Erika Marais, Wessel Pretorius, Carlo Daniels, Gideon Lombard and Ntlanhla Morgan Kutu
Booking: Webtickets online at

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Bravo! The Unlikely Secret Agent is an astonishing play, birthed in South Africa, during the pandemic and is on stage October 2022 in Cape Town, ahead of a national and international tour. If this powerful play lands on a stage near you, make sure you get a ticket. The play is based on the book of the same name by Apartheid struggle activist, Ronnie Kasrils – a tribute to his late wife, Eleanor and her role in the fight for a democratic South Africa. The play premiered in June 2021 at the Drama Factory in the Strand (about 40 minutes from Cape Town). We were a masked audience, sitting socially/physically distanced from each other. I have written how I was bowled over by the script, performances, production design and direction. I remarked that new plays usually take time to gel but that The Unlikely Secret Agent was fully cooked from that first staging, its premiere season. The play was nominated for eight Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards (Cape Town’s version of the Tony Awards) and won for best director, Paul du Toit (he also adapted the book for the stage- excellent script).  It is a master class in directing as it segues from scene to scene and loops around narratives, with precision, intricate weaving of voice, gesture, movement. It is a stunningly stylish play – with the suited male actors (also playing women) and Erika Marais as Eleanor – a spark of colour in her frock- befitting a middle class lass in Durban in the 1960s. The minimal set with a carefully selected props conjures up a vivid picture of the emotional turmoil and physical landscape of the characters.

On my 2nd viewing, October 2022, I gasped, again- at the play – everything it evokes and its sheer dramatic pull. For this run, there are two new cast members. Different actors bring their own interpretations to roles. Wessel Pretorius as Ronnie Kasrils and other roles is a knockout. Pretorius brings in a fabulous impishness to Ronnie. He was on the run from the security police but at the same time he was a romantic and didn’t lose his zest for life. The energy sizzles between Pretorius’ Ronnie and Erika Marais’ Eleanor. In my view, in this production, the love story between Ronnie and Eleanor has been intensified – and the love story for their country -in 1963 -when things were utterly bleak in South Africa. They did not veer from their course and did what they did with bravery, grace and humanity and dark humour.

I don’t recall laughing so much on my first viewing. The humour has been heightened- dark humour – excruciatingly so in the scenes in Fort Napier – the mental hospital – when Eleanor was detained under the draconian security laws. This is comedy of the darkly absurd. Gideon Lombard and Ntlanhla Morgan Kutu – are a tour de force in these scenes and Lombard morphs into his role as the cruel and repugnant Lieutenant Grobler. Lombard was riveting when I first saw the play but again in this viewing, I found that he has sharpened the absurdist comedy of his other roles as Swannie and the waiter. Erika Marais’ Eleanor has a heightened spunkiness. At one point, she asks Ronnie, if she is a terrorist and he retorts: ‘No – Secret Agent”.  I loved the amplified playfulness between the two and the mirth that creeps through the fear, danger and uncertainty. They were playful in the premiere production but even more so in this production.

New cast member, Carlo Daniels teases out the layers in the many characters that he plays. Ntlanhla Morgan Kutu (original cast member), wowed me on my first viewing and he is again fabulous with his versatility – including the matron and Major Steenkamp.

On one level, The Unlikely Secret Agent may be described as a ‘history play’. It brings to the stage, with dramatic power, an important story which is part of South African Apartheid struggle history and opens up conversations and engagement with audiences – wherever they may be- which resonates against injustice and struggle globally- in a world gone mad. That is critical. But beyond its narrative –as a true story – it is a brilliant piece of theatre – which makes one ‘feel’- rather than simply watch: The love story of Eleanor and Ronnie – love for each other- love for country – love for humanity – is the takeaway for Unlikely Secret Agent. Developing a play from page to stage is not an easy gig. Often books are ‘dramatised’ for the stage or film and they come across as ‘flat’ documentary. Team Unlikely Secret Agent have pulled off a superb play which stands alone as a powerful and immersive dramatic experience.  To re-iterate – do not miss – The Unlikely Secret Agent. If we had a Pulitzer Prize in South Africa, the script would be a likely winner

The Unlikely Secret Agent: Baxter, Cape Town, October 2022. Pic: Jeremeo le Cordeur. Supplied.

✳ Featured image – Gideon Lombard and Erika Marais in The Unlikely Secret Agent, at the Baxter, Cape Town, October 2022. Pic: Jeremeo le Cordeur. Supplied.