Theatre Interview: Paul Du Toit – The Unlikely Secret Agent, Or Perplexing The Police

June 7, 2021

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Actor, director and producer Paul du Toit has written a new play based on Ronnie Kasril‘s book The Unlikely Secret Agent.

The play tells the story of Eleanor Anderson (Erika Marais) who was detained by the Apartheid Security Police in the hope that she would lead them to her partner and later husband, ANC stalwart Ronnie Kasrils, accused at the time of being a terrorist. Eleanor is made of far sterner stuff than they imagine so, and devises a daring plot that allows her to protect both her comrades and herself.

The cast also includes Du Toit (as Ronnie), Ntlanhla Morgan Kutu, Gideon Lombard and Sanda Shandu, and the piece is being staged at The Drama Factory in Somerset West.


Live performance is both one of the main drawcards of being a performer and one of the most stressful parts of it. At one point in the process of being involved in a new project do you cross that line?

The more responsibility I have, and the less tested the material I am working with is, the more stressful it is to perform. In the case of The Unlikely Secret Agent, the above stressors are very present. I am at my most stressed about halfway through a rehearsal process, where nothing is really working yet and everything else seems to be going wrong! You just have to accept that making mistakes is essential to the creative process. How else would the happy accidents happen? That’s the real magic.


Do you have techniques to improve either scenario – consistently enjoying the performance aspect (it is a job, after all) or mitigating the stress (of all the issues – from iffy pay to annoying audiences)?

It always helps to surround yourself with talent. I am lucky to have my wonderful cast of Gideon Lombard, Sanda Shandu, Erika Marais and Ntlanhla Kutu. All I have to do is give them the space to take risks and the magic happens. We have become a close company. Knowing that your fellow performers have your back is essential. Also, I think your lifestyle has a lot to do with how you handle the stress of performing. I stay fit, try to eat well and to be happy. You can’t create if you’re angry.


How do you choose projects? What needs to turn you on before you audition for something?

My dear friend Terence Bridgett talks about the “po#s money” sliding scale. The more of a po#s I feel, the more you have to pay me! But if I’m doing a play I love, in a beautiful theatre with brilliant actors, I’ll do it for R2,50! Should I be lucky enough to choose between projects – often you just have to put food on the table – I look for projects that push boundaries of content, style and taste, and work that talks to me. I have always been interested in history, especially South African. The Unlikely Secret Agent not only ticked this box, but also is story of love, bravery, passion and betrayal. All the good things in life!


What are the hooks in a script that you like to hang a performance or the generation of a character on? Depth, dialogue, nuance, reality versus fantasy – what speaks most profoundly to you?

Every project really is different. Speaking for this project, the characters are products of the their time and place. I am trying to ask the difficult questions. What made someone like Eleanor Kasrils (nee Anderson) choose to turn her back on her comfortable bourgeois existence and follow a far more difficult path, for love? What made Ronnie so – in the eyes of many – radical? What made them agree to armed resistance? What made deeply Christian policemen use violence in the name of their cause? How did the police convince some black South Africans sell out their own people to the authorities? These are not hypothetical questions or characters. These were real people. We are, as South African actors, making sense of who and what we are. The various and strongly felt motivations are what fascinate me.


The lifestyle of a working actor is a difficult one to square with family life, or a day job, or half a dozen other aspects of a traditional routine. How do you make it work?

Who says I make it work? My family understand my vocational love for my art. It simply is something I’ve always been, since I was a child. To separate me and theatre just isn’t possible. And my kids love what I do. They love coming to shows and movie sets. I think there’s a childlike wonder is artists, whether they are actors, painters, musicians, stuntmen, props builders or whatever, that kids find great joy in connecting with. There is a magic that artists love sharing with kids, because they are such honest audiences. They haven’t learned how to be jaded yet.


As a performer, you’re often asked to deliver on a set of expectations – the playwright’s; the director’s; the rest of the casts’; the audiences’… What sort of input do you prefer to (demand to?) have as an actor?

Every actor has a way they like to work. Being in the director’s seat this time has made this so apparent to me, as well as how important it is for the director to meet the artist where he or she is. It really is the only way to get the best performance out of them. As an actor, I want a very clear idea of what the director wants from me. Then I need the space to try as many choices as possible. By a process of elimination, I can hopefully work towards the truth. And encouragement helps a lot!


What about directing excites you, and how do the above expectations change from this new perspective?

An an actor, one is a cog in a machine. Like paint on someone else’s brush. The director is the painter. As an actor, you get the adrenaline rush of playing with live audience. As a director, you have the thrill of shaping the production as a whole.


Tell us about The Unlikely Secret Agent, and what makes your character interesting to play?

I couldn’t believe the story when I first read the book. These were people I’d never heard about, and this was such a dangerous time in our history. The play is the story of Eleanor Anderson, a young mother who, in the early 1960s, left behind what could have been a comfortable middle class life. She fell in love with a young hot-headed and passionate activist, Ronnie Kasrils. He showed her a side of her country she never knew existed. One day, officers of the dreaded Security Branch arrested and took her for questioning. They wanted her to give them the whereabouts of “red” Ronnie Kasrils. She refused. But what these police officers didn’t know, was that Eleanor was hiding a far bigger secret. The four male actors all play many parts. The responsibility of the young Ronnie falls on me. And what a responsibility! Fortunately for me, Ronnie has been generous with his time and his knowledge. It goes without saying that this project could never have happened without him.

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