Review: The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story – the play – premiered June 2021 at The Drama Factory, South Africa

What: The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story When: The plan is mid August 2021 – depending on Covid numbers and lockdown regulations  Where: The Drama Factory, 10 Comprop Sq, Henry Vos Close, Asla Business Park, Strand, Western Cape Cast: Paul du Toit, Gideon Lombard, Sanda Shandu, Ntlanhla Kutu and Erika Marais Director: Paul du Toit Producer: Erika Marais Booking: Book securely online with credit card or call 073 215 2290   Parking: Yes – on-site.  Make sure that you have driver’s license in order to enter the business park  

Ronnie Kasrils wrote the book, The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story – a tribute to the grit and bravery of his late wife, Eleanor, in the Struggle against the Apartheid regime. Erika Marais stumbled across the book in a public library. The story resonated with her on many levels. Here was a young woman, in her early twenties, with a young child. In a privileged position as a white person in Durban, leading a genteel life, she stepped out of her bubble of safety and stood by her man (Ronnie Kasrils) and refused to betray her comrades and the underground network. Marais brought Paul du Toit on board to adapt the book for the stage and to direct. Marais and du Toit take on the roles of Ronnie and Eleanor.

On one level, The Unlikely Secret Agent is a love story and it is a love story which endured. Ronnie and Eleanor were together until her death at 73 in 2009. In the play, we see the burgeoning romance between Eleanor and Ronnie. They fall in love. She is sophisticated; a bibliophile, working in a book store, with access to forbidden literature. She is vivacious and playful. He is charismatic and dangerous – at least that was what she is told by the chorus of naysayers.

Eleanor shrugged off the warnings that Ronnie was a Communist and Jewish. The personal and political became knotted together for Eleanor and Ronnie. Their romance is the trigger point in Paul du Toit’s astute stage adaption and it led to the extreme violence and brutality that Eleanor experienced as she was interrogated; detained and locked up in a psychiatric institution. One of her interrogators. Grobler, brilliantly, conjured up by Gideon Lombard, was a brute; a monster. Narrative spoiler alert. We are subsequently told that he took his own life –presumably unable to live with his actions- or was it just a cop-out?

Erika Marais as Eleanor and Paul Du Toit as Ronnie bring in a delightful sense of playfulness to their characters. With everything that they went through, they were upbeat and enchanted by and with each other. One gets the vibe of chemistry that they must have had as a couple, evoked by du Toit and Marais riffing off one another – finishing each other’s sentences. The entire cast is brilliant in conveying various characters, in addition to principle roles. Paul du Toit is terrific as Ronnie – the agitator and organiser and romantic. Lombard as mentioned, nails it as the brute Grobler. Sanda Shandu is chilling as Steenkamp. Newcomer Ntlnahla Kutu is vital presence as Malan and other characters such as a charming impression as Eleanor’s mother warning off her daughter. The ensemble work is excellent – the mass of suits and the individuals within that group. Daniel Galloway’s lighting design heightens the menace – Eleanor trapped in the shadowy interiors of spaces where light did not get in, as she literally shrank against the dark forces around her.

I have seen numerous theatrical stagings of the stories of Struggle heroes in this country (not enough – we need more) and most have been solo performance. Soundscapes, voice-overs, archival footage have been used to convey other protagonists. What struck me about the Unlikely Secret Agent and what makes it stand out for me as a play is that we see Eleanor in the context of what she faced – family, community, interrogators, and perpetrators. She is one woman; flanked by four men who are preying on her; tracking her like a caged animal as they get up from a bank of chairs on the stage and pounce on her. It is dramatically powerful. I shrank back as the interrogators circled around Eleanor. This is not a book we are reading. We are pulled into the tension of this young woman holding it together, in the vortex of men in suits behaving disgracefully; using their power over her and belittling her not only as a spy but because of her gender – that she is a woman – who should know better – that she should not be beguiled by a Jewish Communist. The play is testament to Du Toit’s writing and pacing of dialogue and Marais’ tender and graceful playing of the role.

The intensity and tension reaches a pitch, when Eleanor makes her escape from the psychiatric institution. She flees in plain sight, donning a scarf and holding a basket, supplied by a cleaner. We know her story and that she escapes but watching the scene unfurl on stage, we hold our breaths; hoping that she will get away; which of course she does. This is not reading the story on the page but being there with Eleanor as she slips through the net of capture; to freedom. One reviewer, said that there is still work to be done for this staging. I disagree. The Unlikely Secret Agent is a poignant evocation of the life of a woman of courage, evocatively framed and contextualised in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. The pared down staging, considered use of minimal props (table, chairs), archival footage, shadowy lighting design, provides the space for the powerful performances to be foregrounded. It is a story, peppered by evil and violence but Erika Marais brings a lightness and elegance as Eleanor. The self-deprecating humour by Ronnie provides comic relief and release. Bravo to the entire team for not only making theatre during the pandemic, year two but for also creating an engrossing piece of theatre.

NOTE: I saw this play on June 12, 2021, at The Drama Factory. This was the official opening and Ronnie Kasrils was in the audience and took part in a Q&A after the performance. It was an interesting experience watching him, watching a part of his life, evoked on stage. I have purposefully not referred to his presence at the performance that I saw. The play must be reviewed as a stand-alone piece – not contingent on the fact that Ronnie Kasrils was in the in-house. Undoubtedly, those of us who were there, had the benefit of hearing him, reflect about the play and his experiences but his attendance was a bonus. The day after the afternoon premiere of the play, The Drama Factory put the season on pause as members of the cast, tested positive for Covid. A July season was then scheduled but due to the escalation in Covid and lockdown regulations, that is not happening. The season resumes, mid-August 2021. This is dependent on Covid and lockdown but that is the plan. When it does become “safe” to venture into theatre again, book as soon as dates are announced and make sure you get a ticket to see this true story brought vividly to the stage, as a gripping piece of theatre.

The Unlikely Secret Agent- The Eleanor Kasrils Story: Ntlanhla Kutu, Paul du Toit, Sanda Shandu, Gideon Lombard (left to right). Erika Marais, front. Pic: Jeremeo Le Cordeur. Pics are from the June 2021 season at The Drama Factory, Strand (about 40 minutes from Cape Town). The season was put on pause due to cast members testing positive for Covid. The season resumes, mid August 2021. This is dependent on Covid and lockdown but that is the plan.

Featured image: The Unlikely Secret Agent – Paul du Toit and Erika Marais. Pic: Jeremeo Le Cordeur.