Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Old jeans, fresh immunity: Creating theatre in a time of plague

The Unlikely Secret Agent. From left to right: Gideon Lombard, Erika Marais, Sanda Shandu, Ntlanhla Kutu, Paul du Toit. Image: Supplied.

Surfer, canoeist, borderline bohemian; actor Paul du Toit at first glance seems the least likely person to create a play about a pair of anti-apartheid upstarts. The Unlikely Secret Agent, about Ronnie and Eleanor Kasrils, is his professional theatre directing debut. He wrote it, too. And, until the third wave hit, was also in it.

The last time I saw actor Paul du Toit, it was two years ago in the once crowded, once effervescent foyer of Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay. He’d just been in Offbeat Broadway 5, a crowd-pleasing musical in which he and fellow thespians Anton Luitingh and Lindy Abromowitz parodied showtunes by giving them a “budget makeover”. They did their first volume of the show back in the early 2000s, amassing a loyal local following. 

Twenty-odd years after the first Offbeat Broadway, Du Toit still has movie-star looks: unblemished skin, Arctic eyes, and the svelte physique of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors and active. Plus a laid-back goofiness that belies the intensity of his passions, the robustness of his creativity.  

It’s only when you look at the expansiveness of his career – on stage, on TV, on the big screen – that you realise he has in fact been working compulsively for many years. 

The last legitimate acting job he had before the pandemic interrupted his career was a film by multi-award-winning Etienne Fourie that’s yet to be released. “It’s called Stiekyt and I think it’s going to be great, but you never know,” he says. “It’s about an out-of-work actor who gets a job in a cabaret club, because he left a soap opera to do more ‘serious work’. What happens? Obviously, he sits there getting f***-all serious work and so his agent gets him a job at what turns out to be a drag club. It starts off as what you think is a silly take on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but then suddenly morphs into a Coen Brothers murder movie.” 

Menacing twists aside, Stiekyt’s plot has overlaps with Du Toit’s own life. For years he was on a popular Afrikaans hospital soap, Binnelanders. But he gave up consistent TV work in Johannesburg and returned to the Cape to spend more time with his family, and to have more time to do the things he loves: be on stage, surf and do crazy things like trying to survive the Dusi Canoe Marathon (which he has, at least half a dozen times). 

And, while he didn’t exactly get a full-time gig as a drag artist, his award-winning turn as a transgender rocker in the edgy musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in fact launched Gate69, Cape Town’s dedicated drag cabaret venue. 

While there was time for more stage work, he also found his way into a lot more international television, since much of that is shot in Cape Town. He’s savoured being able to go against type, playing bad guys such as the dastardly Commander Lazaro in Syfy channel’s tongue-in-cheek space opera series, Vagrant Queen, which dropped in 2020. And before doing Stiekyt he starred in an Irish movie, From the Ashes. “I played Satan, a part I’ve always wanted to take on,” he says. 

But then came the long lull, with no parts at all. 

Eighteen months on, Du Toit is older, wiser, but just as buzzed as ever. It’s a couple of hours before curtain up on the final dress rehearsal of the first show he’s done since lockdown began. Understandably breathless, his heart is no doubt pounding, head spinning with last-minute things he’s meant to be doing, remembering what notes he should be giving his cast, mentally going over his own lines. A wardrobe tweak here, a lighting adjustment there. 

“Geez, man, what a joy it is to be back treading the boards,” he gushes. “Acting again is like putting on an old pair of jeans. It just feels right. I know that this is exactly what I’m meant to be doing. That this is all I really want to do.” 

He’s not only acting, though. He also wrote and directed the show, an adaptation of Ronnie Kasrils’s award-winning autobiographical book, The Unlikely Secret Agent. He says it took last year’s lockdown to force him to finally commit to paper a play he wanted to write. 

“Lockdown was the trigger. I had no excuse not to write it. So every day I would sit and bash it out. I turned my window into a roadmap of Post-it notes to try and organise the fragmented timeline I used to amplify the broken emotional state that Eleanor ends up in. It’s structured so that Eleanor is ultimately reunited with her hero so they can, metaphorically, ride into the sunset, which is what happened.” 

Paul du Toit and Erika Marais in The Unlikely Secret Agent. Image: Supplied

The Eleanor in question is the woman whom Kasrils, the veteran anti-apartheid activist and former cabinet minister, now in his 80s, once upon a time fell in love with and married. The play picks up in the early 1960s, when the country is under Verwoerd and on a knife-edge. 

“During that period,” Du Toit explains, “BJ Vorster was minister of justice and he brought in detention without trial and declared a state of emergency. I think Breyten Breytenbach put it perfectly when he called Vorster ‘Balthazar Die Slagter’ [Balthazar the Butcher]. He gave the police security branch special powers and a strong mandate to track down and eliminate opponents of apartheid.” 

Ronnie Kasrils was among those they were determined to eliminate. 

“It’s against that violent, harrowing background, with all the insanity of apartheid South Africa, that I tell a love story. For me the significance of the story is that it’s about two people who share not only a love for each other but a conviction. And they share a determination to do what that conviction requires, no matter the cost to themselves.  

“Before they met, Eleanor lived a very simple, comfortable, middle-class white South African life where it was very easy to say you didn’t know what was going on. Ronnie opened her eyes to reality and they joined Umkhonto weSizwe and started a bombing campaign together. 

“Their enemy was the apartheid government and instead of simply saying, ‘Oh, it’s wrong’, they decided to try and change the way things were. What’s incredible is what these kids went through and what they got up to – the danger they engaged in.”

The story zooms in on Eleanor who is arrested and taken in for questioning as the police hunt for her lover, the notorious so-called terrorist, “Red” Ronnie Kasrils. Rather than betray Ronnie and her ANC comrades, though, she endures heinous treatment – including terrible abuse – at the hands of the security police, portrayed in Du Toit’s play by actors who take on multiple roles, greatly adding to the theatricality of the production. Eleanor, far smarter than her persecutors assume, fakes a nervous breakdown and gets herself transferred to a psychiatric institution where she plots her escape. 

“She’s ‘unlikely’,” says Du Toit, “because she was just the last person anyone would suspect of being a spy. Including the security branch cops. They knew she’d been to some protests and they knew that she was with Ronnie when he was doing ‘things’, but they had no idea she was the one building the timers, she was the one driving the getaway car, she was the one planning these events. She even planted one of the bombs. She was this very slender, blonde, demure, blue-eyed woman who worked in a bookstore. Really the last person you’d suspect of being a spy. 

“One of the reasons nobody knows about Eleanor is that she just wasn’t ‘that sort of person’. She didn’t crave the limelight. Once they escaped to Tanzania, she quietly went about operating in the background for the ANC. She had a very delicate way, yet she worked with all the big guys – Braam Fischer, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli and Govan Mbeki, and apparently she was a bit of a mother hen figure to the whole exile family.”

What’s been very helpful to both Du Toit and co-star Erika Marais, who plays Eleanor, who died in 2009, has been having Ronnie lend his support, answering questions, providing deeper insight and showing up to watch runs of the show.

“When I met him,” Du Toit says, “I was very respectful. ‘Hello, Mr Kasrils. Nice to meet you, sir.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, please, call me Ronnie’. Such a humble, down-to-earth, friendly gent. Like everyone’s favourite grandpa. This big, warm ball of love. Meeting him made me all the more interested in trying to tell the story of the woman that this man fell in love with. What made her that special?”

It may be a love story at its core, but it’s packed with adrenalin and excitement and danger, says Du Toit. “When the cops did catch Ronnie a couple of times, they f***ed him up properly. His nose was bust, his eyes were black. But this guy had the guts to take that sort of stuff on.” 

What’s witnessed in this play, though, is the extent of the traumas Eleanor endured – for her convictions, and for the man she loved unreservedly.   

“Hearing what they took on made me wonder, often, whether – if I had been in those situations – I’d have had the balls to follow my convictions,” Du Toit says. “I’m almost too scared to answer that for myself. But luckily I get to play a character who doesn’t hesitate for a second.”

The Unlikely Secret Agent. Image: Supplied

While playing Kasrils has felt like slipping into a pair of old jeans, Du Toit says directing a new play in which he also takes on a major role has been tough. 

“Would I like to direct more in the future? Absolutely, I’ve loved it. But next time I’d like to just direct. And maybe write the script. But I don’t want to act in something I direct again. That was a necessity forced on us by a Covid-shrunken budget.” 

While the pandemic is probably the main reason the play exists in the first place, because lockdown gave him the distraction-free time to sit down and write it, Du Toit says financially it’s been hard to make sense of. “It’s why we’re all wearing multiple hats. Erika, who plays Eleanor, is also our producer. Our audiences are half the size. It’s a small venue which seats 120, so our audiences, before the new Level 3 lockdown restrictions, were maximum 60. Now only 50 people are permitted. Our income is less than half. It’s been very tough in terms of straightforward finance, very difficult to make the numbers work. But one advantage was that the actors were available, so we got this amazing cast.” 

Having so many out-of-work actors out there is, of course, not ideal. Du Toit says it wounds him that so many careers have been placed on hold, that theatres have been permanently shuttered. “To see my industry shut down, or limp along at an absolute snail pace, has been heartbreaking for me. What I do is not just a job, it’s part of my DNA. It’s how I look at life. When I see something amazing, I think, ‘Oh, wow, I must remember that for a film, I must remember it for a play’. The need to tell stories is just how I relate to the world.”

In the meantime, the reality of Covid-19 as a highly transmissible disease has directly affected Du Toit’s own production. 

“We were very careful, followed all precautions. Our cast and crew were under strict instructions to stay in their bubbles. We could not afford to get sick. Obviously not. The main note from day one was, ‘Don’t go and jol with your mates! Don’t go visiting your granny in the old-age home!’ I’m very sorry, but we need to look after ourselves and one another. Because if one of us goes down, that’s the play gone.” 

The Unlikely Secret Agent. From left to right: Ntlanhla Kutu, Paul-du-Toit, Sanda Shandu, Gideon Lombard. Image: Supplied.

And then it happened. A day after the play opened mid-June, an infection was detected in one actor. Within hours, the entire company was tested and the whole cast – all positive – was self-isolating. The show was postponed.

“We just have no idea where and when this virus snuck into our bubble,” Du Toit said during the two-week isolation, “but it demonstrates just how cautious we need to be, how seriously the protocols need to be taken.” 

While Broadway – in the city that was at this stage last year seemingly the global epicentre of the pandemic – has begun to reopen, for South African theatre, the show will not, it seems, go on. Not until the current third wave is under control, and presumably not until the population has been largely vaccinated and herd immunity reached. 

If New York has anything to teach us, it’s that the vaccine alone now offers hope to the beleaguered live performance industry. June 26th saw the re-opening of Springsteen on Broadway, with admission to the live show for confirmed vaccinated patrons; anyone too young or otherwise unable to have been vaccinated, a negative Covid test was required to gain admittance to the show. The immediate future of theatre, it seems, will require a radical rethink of the manner in which audiences gather. Vaccination is, it seems, critical to the survival of the industry. DM/ML 

The Unlikely Secret Agent, written and directed by Paul du Toit, is based on Ronnie Kasrils’s Alan Paton Award-winning book. It stars Erika Marais (as Eleanor Kasrils), Ntlanhla Morgan Kutu (making his professional theatre debut), Gideon Lombard and Sanda Shandu; Du Toit plays Ronnie Kasrils. Following the recent level 4 lockdown, the play, which was supposed to open at The Drama Factory in Strand on 6 July 2021, has been postponed indefinitely. 

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