John Maytham reviews theatrical adaptation of Ruth First's story

CapeTalk presenter John Maytham is at the National Arts Festival 2016 and reflects on the theatre production "Ruth First: 117 Days."

Ruth First spent 117 days in solitary confinement in 1963. She was one of many anti-apartheid activists arrested in the wake of the Rivonia raids, as the National Party government tried to mop up all resistance.

She wrote about that experience in a book - called 117 days - and published in 1965. The very accomplished theatrical production team of Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer have adapted that book for the stage; a production that also marks Meyer's directorial debut.

The staging is immaculate; the three key elements of set design, sound track and lighting all make very impressive contributions to a largely engrossing evening. The sound , by Charl Johan Lingenfelder, is especially notable. Cell doors clanging shut; water dripping; a typewriter clacking as First describes key elements of her history. They all add to the sense of oppressive brutality and mental torture.

There's also the disembodied voice of her interrogator as he tries to get her to inform on her comrades. That is a strategy she contemplates as she struggles to deal with the emotional disintegration that accompanies her isolation, but one she rejects, as she finds the courage to stay defiant.

Actress Jackie Rens looks and sounds remarkably like a young Ruth First and her performance is well controlled and thoughtful, though perhaps greater variation of pace and rhythm would have added some light and shade that is missing.

But the greatest barrier to complete engrossment in the action in Ruth First's plight is her self-contained hard shell personality. She reveals very little of her soul and spirit in the book, and that cool distance transfers to the play. And that means the audience engagement is more intellectual than emotional, which is a pity.

Image credit: CuePix/Mia van der Merwe - NAF 2016

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