The Unlikely Secret Agent: 'Eleanor has become a part of me' - Erika Marais

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Erika Marais and Sanda Shandu in The Unlikely Secret Agent. (Photo: Jeremeo Le Cordeur)
Erika Marais and Sanda Shandu in The Unlikely Secret Agent. (Photo: Jeremeo Le Cordeur)

THEATRE: The Unlikely Secret Agent at Artscape's Arena Theatre

The Unlikely Secret Agent will be performed from 4 to 9 August at the Artscape Women Humanity Arts Festival. Presented by Unlikely Productions, the play was nominated for a total of eight Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, with Paul du Toit winning for best director. Du Toit also adapted the story for the stage, based on Ronnie Kasrils’ Alan Paton Award-winning novel with the same name. The play explores the brave journey of Eleanor,  Kasrils’ wife and a clandestine agent for the Underground ANC, as she navigates her escape from Apartheid South Africa. Erika Marais, nominated for best actress for her portrayal of Eleanor Kasrils, tells News24 she spent many hours in conversation with Kasrils about what Eleanor was like.  

What for you is the most challenging part of taking on the role of Eleanor Kasrils in The Unlikely Secret Agent?

The fact that Eleanor Kasrils was a living person and not just a fictional character comes with a huge responsibility. It is very important to me to stay true to the person whom she was and bring honour to her character and legacy, and to tell her story truthfully.

What does your preparation process look like when putting together and creating the character, Eleanor.

In order to portray Eleanor truthfully, I have devoured every little piece of writing I could lay my hands on about Eleanor’s life and her role in the struggle. I spent many hours in conversation with Ronnie Kasrils about what Eleanor was like. I wanted to know what made her happy and sad, her likes and dislikes, her hopes and fears. And so I try to not only embody her physicality and mannerisms, but also her most inner thoughts and feelings

Ronnie has also been incredibly helpful by sharing little anecdotes about Eleanor’s childhood, photographs of her during her lifetime and even family home videos. I was also fortunate to meet Eleanor cousin Liz and her daughter Brigid recently, which has enabled me to still continue learning more about the incredible woman Eleanor was.

Gideon Lombard, Erika Marais, Sanda Shandu, Ntlanh
Gideon Lombard, Erika Marais, Sanda Shandu, Ntlanhla Kutu, Paul du Toit. (Photo: Jeremeo Le Cordeur)

Do you leave the character at the theatre, or does she linger with you when return to your own life after a performance?

Although I do try to leave her behind in the rehearsal and dressing room, I find it almost impossible. When I portray a character I always try and find some aspects of the character that are similar to myself or that I can relate to in order to portray the character truthfully. So in a sense, Eleanor has become a part of me and I constantly find myself during the day thinking of how she would handle a certain situation, or how she would feel and react to certain stimuli which may come my way.

What inspires you most about Eleanor Kasrils?

Eleanor had an incredible inner strength which allowed her to stand up for what she believed is right and just, even in the face of danger. It is this courage and her love for her fellow human being that I find so extremely inspiring. And it makes me question myself, that if I was placed in the same situation, whether I would have been as strong as she was.

If you could ask Eleanor one question, what would it be?

As a mother myself, the thought of Eleanor being separated from her young daughter for literally 11 years breaks my heart. If I could ask Eleanor one question, it would probably be how she managed to cope with that longing and heart-ache? And also, what it was like to be then finally re-united again with her after such a long time. 

Show information

The Unlikely Secret Agent will be performed from 4 to 9 August at Artscape in the Arena Theatre.

Performance times are: 4, 5, 6 and 9 August at 18:30 and 6, 7 and 9 August at 14:30. 

Age restriction: PG14 – strong language, racial prejudice and gender-based violence 

Tickets cost R190 and can be booked at Computicket

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