The power of peace

2011-09-02 14:17

For lawyer Les Morison his first play represents “the defining moment of our generation’s history”.

The Prize of Peace ponders on the lead-up to the country’s first democratic elections and the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk months before they had assured a peaceful transition.

Morison says that the death of his father was the catalyst that allowed him to write this play about the struggles that the fathers of our nation faced and overcame to reimagine an inclusive South Africa.

Clare Stopford, who most recently directed a critically acclaimed version of Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio for the National Arts Festival’s main programme, has been involved with this play since its early drafts.

Purgatorio is a two-hander that also deals with themes of retribution, contrition and trust.

For a director, working with a completely new piece is thrilling.

After all, most follow in the footsteps of other directors and the writer is not easily accessible.

Here the writer and director have worked together since the work’s infant stages and so share a vision of its staging.
Says Stopford of the staging: “It’s very exciting to create a staging that is entirely new.

“We have used the metaphor of the table. That table is much more than just a dinner table – it’s a negotiation table.”

Stopford, who took time out from rehearsals with the cast – Owen Sejake, Eric Nobbs, Elise van Niekerk and Maphuti Komape – says of the play’s core: “The central drama is the antagonistic relationship. For me, despite the antagonism, they push through.

That history towards the first democratic election was fairly tortured and this is a character study of two very interesting people who trained as lawyers. Les puts that spin on it.”

Morison says of the legal angle that the play began as an exercise in for-and-against arguments for extremism.
He says: “It was inherently dramatic.” In the play, these far-right and left-wing positions are represented by the peripheral characters played by Van Niekerk and Komape, while the two leads – Sejake and Nobbs as Mandela and De Klerk, respectively – grapple with getting beyond their personal differences to forge a new nation born in peace.

Morison, though, is quick to say that the play isn’t factual. Rather, “these characters are emblematic of the South African political discourse”.

Stopford adds to this: “It is a story worth telling because it’s very resonant of where we are now in race relations. There’s this worry whether we can trust each other, but we keep pushing through.”

The irony of the two men firstly sharing a peace award and then accepting one while the country is still slipping in and out of violence informs the play’s content.

Stopford says that in her direction she has used boxing metaphors extensively to help the actors get to grips with the personal and political relationships between the two statesmen.

“I say they are going back to the ropes now. Then, gloves on.”

Stopford says another of the main thrusts of the action is that Mandela wants to extract a public apology for apartheid.

“The utterance of being able to say I am sorry and apartheid was wrong is crucial.”

Morison adds to this, pointing out that apologies in history have taken centuries or many, many years. For example, Australia’s apology to the Aborigines was centuries too late.

But Morison says that we had to do it much more quickly, all in the pursuit of peace. He says that this story sits on the boundary of law and justice, and that another of the key elements is about the restoration of dignity for South Africans who were denied it for so long by criminal laws.

An amateur staging of the play was put on at a school last year. As a result of its success, the play will be on the recommended reading lists of IEB schools.

It offers the next generation, for whom the early 1990s are already distant, a way of interacting with our nation’s most important moment – that moment when history dictated we should choose war, but we chose peace.

For Morison, who researched his work meticulously through reading and interviews with De Klerk and George Bizos, Mandela’s lawyer, this play is also a personal thank you to the two men who made sure that he didn’t end up like so many of South Africa’s young white men – brutalised by violence after being conscripted.

Morison says he avoided the call by continually studying and in his writer’s note he says: “Like most of us, I was formed in the shadow of war.

Like most boys, the war I was interested in was not the one looming on the horizon, but one fading into the past ... ?And then FW de Klerk spoke.

It was an incredible release. No ordinary South African saw it coming.

The spontaneous reaction of so many of us was unbridled elation. We gathered a week later to see Mandela walk free. It was the happiest day in the history of the country.

“Between them, these two great men freed us all. They gave us peace. I live forever in their debt. I try to repay them by telling others about what they did – to present their joint case of non-racialism as best I can, with ever greater urgency, for they may not for much longer be with us.”

Morison says that the creative cork has now popped, and he has two more plays swirling around in his head.

Morison hopes that audiences will take the same journey he did in writing the play. “It took me out of law into justice; from politics to race.”

» The Prize of Peace runs at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square in Sandton until September 24.
011 883 8606

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