Emily Hobhouse, from the play's poster

If Emily Hobhouse had been born 70 or 80 years later than she was, there is little doubt she would have been a leading activist in the anti-apartheid movement, organising the resistance in rural areas, getting herself detained periodically by the Security Branch, organising strident concerts with the likes of Billy Bragg and Madness on the programme. Or for that matter, the Marikana miners, if she had been born a century later.

But it was Miss Hobhouse’s destiny to be born in 1860.

The great global political outrage of her day was a rampant British imperialism, and the darkest day of the empire came with what should have been a bully war for control of mineral deposits, with the might of the then indisputably dominant force in world affairs on one side and two tiny independent Boer republics in the SA hinterland on the other.

In the event Hobhouse succoured, crusaded for, and – her mortal remains finding their final resting place in Bloemfontein’s Vrouemonument – came to be revered as a folk hero by, those very Boers who would have borne the brunt of her righteous anger had she been born closer to the end of the millennium.

Playwright, sometime restaurateur and Weekend Argus food critic Tony Jackman delivers a mental shrug when asked how he came to light on the subject for his play An Audience with Miss Hobhouse, opening at Cape Town’s Intimate Theatre next week.

“Emily is one of my women,” Jackman says. “I find myself writing about women who step out from the pack and make themselves felt. They’re the people I most admire.”

Jackman’s first play, Blue Train Calling, centres on what he describes as an “awkward friendship” that grows up on Greenmarket Square between Victoria, a well-heeled British sophisticate who happens to be black, and a middle-aged white vagrant.

His second, Bloody England, is about the writer Olive Schreiner’s “relationship with [Cecil John] Rhodes, whom she admired at first but grew to detest, rightly so”.

Seeing its first public performance – appropriately enough at the third annual Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival in August – An Audience with Miss Hobhouse is a one-hander directed by Chris Weare, founder of the Intimate Theatre and director of the Little Theatre. Film, television and radio actress Lynita Crofford has taken on the challenging task of changing character on stage to alternate between two major roles – Hobhouse herself, and a Boer woman, Tant’ Alie Badenhorst, who chronicles the horrors of scorched earth military campaigns and the concentration camps from the inside – as well as a range of minor characters punctuating the progress and moving the action along.

Originally the structure was going to be simpler, Jackman recounts.

But then, thanks to academic archivist Jeremy Fogg at Rhodes University’s National English Literature Museum, he encountered the memoir of Tant’ Alie as translated by Hobhouse in the university’s collection.

“Emily was going to be alone on stage until I ‘met’ Alie,” Jackman says. “But the richness of her writing and the way she tells her own story is compelling, and I decided to bring her in as a second character. The other texts were fairly well-known Hobhouse biographies, but Alie was the one that resonated.”

It is harrowing in its detail of scurvy and hunger and all the horrors visited on the Boer women and their children as their farms were destroyed and they were incarcerated while the great imperial plan unfolded.

Harrowing too is the tale of Hobhouse, daughter of an Anglican rector driven by nothing more or less than wanting to leave the world a better place than she found it, and finding herself in bitter conflict with the smug intransigence of imperial authority.

Jackman’s touch is literary, full of restraint and old-school-deference, steeped in a barely acknowledged genre of colonially flavoured SA writing that recalls Olive Schreiner, Guy Butler and Patrick Cullinan.

It is not an accident that at the Schreiner festival, An Audience with Miss Hobhouse received a standing ovation from an audience that included eminent writers and academics like Etienne van Heerden, Stephen Gray and Professor Paul Walters.

But come to think of it, it might have something to say about Marikana after all. Nothing much has changed in the relationship between the power elite and the people of the land since then.

Meanwhile Jackman says he is looking at the writings of Sol Plaatje for his next venture in theatre. - Weekend Argus

* An Audience with Miss Hobhouse opens at the Intimate Theatre, UCT Hiddingh Campus, Orange Street, Gardens, on Tuesday at 8pm.