Theatre interview: Taking the The Unlikely Secret Agent from page to stage- Erika Marais and Paul du Toit talk about making this new play a reality in the time of Corona, June 2021, at the Drama Factory, South Africa

In the limelight: Paul du Toit and Erika Marais

Current project: The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story
When: June 10-20, 2021 at The Drama Factory, Strand, Western Cape  

The logistics of taking a book from stage to page requires considerable work and investment. In the time of Corona, the challenges are amplified. Theatre maker Erika Marais has pulled it off and is producing The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story, based on the award-winning book of the same name by Ronnie Kasrils. The play opens tomorrow – June 10, 2021 – at The Drama Factory in the Strand (about 40 minutes’ drive from Cape Town). Marais worked closely with Paul du Toit who adapted the book for the stage and who also directs and performs, as Ronnie Kasrils. In addition to producing, Marais is performing as Eleanor Kasrils. The Unlikely Secret Agent has been self-funded and has a superb cast. It is a full-on production – not a staged reading. Kudos to the team for bringing us independent theatre in the time of Rona, South Africa, year two of the pandemic, lockdown level 1, amended.

TheCapeRobyn: When did the Unlikely Secret Agent journey begin – before lockdown? Was the book recommended to you or did you stumble on it?

Erika Marais: Yes, I literally stumbled upon it in a dusty corner of the Hout Bay Library. I sat down and started reading it. I immediately felt an affinity towards Eleanor. There were so many parallels: We shared a love for the arts. We were both mothers at a young age and there I was, in my happy place, surrounded by books, much like she would have been in the bookshop where she worked. The project basically started at the end of 2019, with discussions between Paul [du Toit] and myself, and I contacted Ronnie [Kasrils] in April 2020. Paul wrote the script during lockdown.

TheCapeRobyn: How did your collaboration come about with Paul du Toit – to adapt the book and direct?

Erika Marais: I knew Paul from the Drama Factory, where we have both worked. The theatre was the venue that premiered two productions that I was involved with which went to the National Arts Festival in 2019. Paul was performing Two To Tango and I was in My Perfect Life. We were lucky enough to earn an Ovation Award at the Festival for My Perfect Life. Afterwards, I felt like I needed to keep challenging myself. That’s when I approached Paul and gave him the book to read. Luckily he shared my enthusiasm for the story and he agreed to start adapting the book for stage. I contacted Ronnie via email for the first time and he was very easy approachable and soon thereafter supportive.

TheCapeRobyn: Paul – have you adapted a novel before for stage or is this a first for you?

Paul du Toit: Oh, this production is full of firsts for me. I’ve had some experience writing for TV and stage, but a lot of those projcets were fairly collaborative. With the Unlikely Secret Agent, it was just me in my study during lockdown. When the script was presented to the company, it was just my name on the cover -obviously with credit given to Ronnie. I must admit that it was quite a thrill. Lots of firsts in this production. I said to the cast on day one that this was going to be a different experience: The pandemic has shrunk our budgets so were obligated to wear many hats in order to create art. I didn’t want my focus on directing to compromise my performance and vice versa. I relied heavily on the cast – especially the more experienced members- to be an outside eye. I needed them to challenge my ideas. If I couldn’t justify them or make them work, they were changed. In a way the process was quite democratic.

TheCapeRobyn: Erika- in addition to producing, you are playing Eleanor. You got a new hair cut (like hers?) and have spent time with Ronnie – in order to flesh out the role?

Erika Marais: I didn’t set out to mimic her, but to capture her essence. I obviously read and re-read the book, researched the period, politically and socially, and obviously, most importantly, spoke to Ronnie. It was so moving to experience first-hand and admiration for her. We sat on his stoep in Greenside, and as he reminisced about her, she began to live in my head.

TheCapeRobyn: How many years does the book span and what is the time span in the play? The stage is different to the page. Any comments re the staging?

Paul du Toit and Erika Marais answering jointly: Obviously the book covers more than we can fit onto a stage in one night. But the play focusses on events from 1960-1963- events that for us best captured who she was and her inspiring story of love and hope in troubled times.

TheCapeRobyn: The word “brave” has been used in relation to Eleanor. In the 1960s, there was no WhatsApp, mobile phones etc. How do you convey this to audiences in 2021, who cannot imagine the fortitude it took to take a stand?

Paul du Toit and Erika Marais answering jointly: Bravery is timeless. And we hope that we can play some small part in making her story known. Our costumes and design are there to convey the period, however, we hope that the message rings timeless.

TheCapeRobyn: It takes guts to stage independent theatre at any time and more so during the pandemic. Plans to stage it elsewhere?

Paul du Toit and Erika Marais answering jointly: We have approached various parties for funding. We are optimistic that some of them will come through for us, but for now, it’s the producer [Erika Marais], digging into her own account.

TheCapeRobyn: Anything else to add?

Paul du Toit and Erika Marais answering jointly: This play is our humble tribute to the memory of Eleanor Kasrils. Not only did she love the arts, she was also passionate about what was right. With this in mind, on Youth Day [June 16], we will be holding a special performance for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will be giving a meal and a ticket to the show. And Ronnie and the cast will hold a Q&A session with them after the performance. Should anyone wish to help sponsor a child, they can contact Bridget van Oerle by e-mail:

The Unlikely Secret Agent – The Eleanor Kasrils Story- premiere season- June 2021- Drama Factory  

Cast- with Instagram handles

Paul du Toit -@paulie_du_toit  
Erika Marais – @erikamarais  
Gideon Lombard– @gideonlombard
Sanda Shandu – @itsanda_control
Ntlanhla Kutu– @ntlanhlakutu  

Director: Paul du Toit
Producer: Erika Marais

Where and when: June 10-20 at The Drama Factory, 10 Comprop Sq, Henry Vos Close, Asla Business Park, Strand, Western Cape

Booking: Book securely online with credit card or call 073 215 2290  
Parking: Yes – secure on-site
Facebook: @UnlikelySecretAgent
Instagram @UnlikelySecretAgent
Twitter @UnlikelySecret
Hashtag #unlikelysecretagent  

The Unlikely Secret Agent- The Eleanor Kasrils Story, premiering at The Drama Factory, Strand, Western Cape, South Africa, June 10-21, 2021. Paul Du Toit and Erika Marais in front. Flanked by Gideon Lombard, Nhlanhla Morgan Kutu and Sanda Shandu. Supplied.