The way Rivonia Trial writer and director Aubrey Sekhabi tells it, he had no choice.
“I was compelled to tell the story. I believe it can help with nation-building and reconciliation,” said Sekhabi.
Last year he adapted for the stage the South African story of which legends were born – the trial that changed the course of this country’s destiny and put Nelson Mandela in prison for 27 years.
Together with his team (he shares writing credits with Paul Grootboom and Mandla Dube), he’s doing it again, with the production opening at the State Theatre on April 15.
The story follows the trial through the eyes of the witnesses, the defence lawyers and the arrested MK cadres.
“It’s the ultimate South African story and everyone has a part in it. No part is forced,” says Sekhabi.
“It was an honour doing the research and learning more about amazing personalities such as Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu, Bram Fischer and the others.
“They all have amazing qualities that show the ability of the human spirit to triumph.
“This trial happened in the city, right here on my doorstep.”
And that’s another reason he had to write it, says Sekhabi.
The historic trial, which garnered international attention, took place at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, and much of the play’s staging last year was focused on the soccer World Cup and the fact that the world was visiting our continent.
This time, the focus is on sizing it so it’s sellable.
“We have sacrificed some of the theatrics, but are still able to achieve the same effect.
“Because this is a political story, we initially went for a grand style. It was important to let the people feel it and smell it. We captured it in its grimmest detail, so it would touch the deepest nerve.
“But now the focus is more on the drama,” Sekhabi said.
Instead of the four hours the first production ran, it will now have a more audience-friendly duration of two and half. And while there are a few changes to the first cast, most of it remains the same.
Sello Maake ka Ncube again plays Nelson Mandela, Lionel Newton plays Bram Fischer, Macks Papo plays Walter Sisulu, Emmanuel Castis plays Rusty Bernstein, Renos Spoundes is George Bizos, Xolile Tshabalala is Winnie Mandela and Harriet Manamela is Albertina Sisulu.
Moagi Modise replaces Seputla Sebogodi as Albert Luthuli and Raymond Mhlaba; Fezile Mpela replaces Vusi Kunene as Govan Mbeki; Molefi Monaisa replaces Mncedisi Shabangu in the role of Bruno Mtolo; and Brandon Auret replaces James Alexander as James Goldberg.
Being in the show demands a level of professional commitment comparable to the level of political and personal commitment for which the revolutionaries were respected.
Some of the actors do shooting for TV productions during the day and come in for rehearsals at the State Theatre at 6pm every evening.
“I’ve noticed that the play has affected the way the actors relate to each other as human beings and I’m glad, because today we need more of the kind of passion our heroes had,” says Sekhabi.
His vision for the show includes a national tour. He also feels it easily lends itself to a film or TV series.
He would also like to see the script being made a school set work. And after this, he’s itching to work on fictional material.
“This work had to be done and somebody had to do it. It had to be captured and made accessible. But it would be nice to get back to the madness of writing fiction. With the real events of a play like Rivonia Trial, one has to be responsible in the storytelling,” Sekhabi says.
l Rivonia Trial opens at the State Theatre on April 15.