Thespians in the dock

2011-04-22 09:45

In the winter of 1963 the ­anti-apartheid movement had one of its coldest brushes with the repressive South African state. On July 11 the entire high command of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was arrested on a?farm?in Rivonia, outside Joburg.

The arrest was followed by the historic Rivonia Trial which is the subject and title of a play directed by Aubrey Sekhabi. The production, which had its first run during the soccer World Cup, is currently on at the State Theatre in Pretoria.

To get a sense of the task Sekhabi and his team of actors tackled, consider the scale of the creative challenges inherent in his chosen subject matter.

Unlike all other political arrests or such trials of the time, “this one’s headlines were bigger, the excitement greater, the adjectives stronger and the claims by government officials and spokespeople of the police more sweeping than before”, as Joel Joffe remembers in his book The State vs Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa.
 
Joffe was one of the defence lawyers in the case.

In fact, two days after the arrest, the Rand Daily Mail ran a bold headline: Subversion – End Near. The police were calling it the “major breakthrough in the elimination of subversive organisations”.

But apart from the grand energy surrounding the trial facing Sekhabi et al, there’s the technical challenge of making theatrical drama out of what is essentially a collective of legal talking heads in a courtroom.

And this is where the director’s wits and his actors’ artistic worth are put to the test.

Sekhabi has assembled some of the best talents in the country, in fact, ­everybody’s favourite theatre and ­television stars have been ­selected for the job.

Leading man Sello Maake ka Ncube plays Nelson Mandela with the role of his young wife, Winnie, carried ably by Xolile Tshabalala who does justice in reflecting the character’s youthfulness.

Fezile Mpela becomes Govan Mbeki while the Sisulu couple are played by Harriet Manamela and Macks Papo.

Perhaps these two have the ­second-toughest roles on the stage, because like the Mandelas, the ­Sisulus are well-remembered and that makes creative licence a hard-won resource.

So the often fiery Papo’s struggle with the real ­Walter’s ­generally restrained ­character should be forgiven.

To break what would have been a boring case of watching a back and forth of court proceedings, Sekhabi has employed two devices.

He intercepts the testimonies of key witnesses and the prisoners to construct illustrative nuggets or episodes to bring the story to life.

Here the courtroom is reshaped through clever design to become the private home of the Sisulus, the bomb scene following one of MK’s sabotage activities and also the inside of the thatched room of the fateful farm, ­Liliesleaf. The secret hideout was privately owned by Arthur Goldreich.

He is played by Renous Spanoudes who also handles the role of George Bizos.

To keep the theatricality of the trial alive, Sekhabi had to think outside the box. He has ensured that by the time the audience ­finally sits down to watch, the show is already well under way.

To enter the theatre, audiences are required to make the long walk from the Church Street ­entrance through the theatre complex to the Pretorius Street side, then up four floors through the stairs to where the “courtroom” is located.

It’s a distance of roughly 50 metres. This procession makes the ­onlookers part of the play, as they are chaperoned through a ­corridor of holding cells.

Here the theatre’s front house staff, dressed in police uniforms, bark instructions and shout as the audience files into the hall. Thus preparing them for the gripping scene of the biggest trial in our country’s history.

The director needed to use these ­ploys. How else was he going to keep this story interesting? Sekhabi explains why he keeps the action in the courtroom, instead of drawing more on the individual lives and loves involved.

“It’s a political story and I ­wanted to keep it that way.” He ­also says the return of the play is “just a response to people who kept?calling and emailing to ask for it”.

Sekhabi and his team shaved 30 minutes off the running time for the rerun. Even so, it’s a long sit.

As an aside, Liliesleaf goes under the auctioneer’s hammer on May 12 at Summer Place. Somewhere under the house ­lies Mandela’s Makarov pistol, so the story goes.

The gun, a gift from Haile Selassie, is said to be worth about R22 million while the owner hopes to get just R3 million for the house.

» Rivonia Trial runs until May 15 at The State Theatre’s Arena.

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