FOR Joburg actor David Dukas, the chance to play historical figure Cecil John Rhodes in Duncan Buwalda’s play, Hinterland which will stage at the National Arts Festival (NAF), is a bonus on so many levels.
Firstly, he’d been looking to participate at NAF for some time when the opportunity to play Rhodes came through his agent. Secondly, he loves the script, which offers something of a “what if?” scenario, where Rhodes and Sol Plaatje’s paths cross. And thirdly, while researching his character, Dukas discovered his family actually shares a historical link to Rhodes, through his great- great- grandfather, Commandant Pieter Raaff.
Hinterland is a historical comedy-drama about the (fictional) meeting of two giants of South African history. More than 100 years after his death, Rhodes still enjoys fame (or notoriety) as Southern Africa’s arch-Imperialist, while the multi-talented man of letters, Plaatje, was one of the ANC’s founding fathers in 1912.
The plot has the two men meet while Kimberley is besieged during the Anglo-Boer War. In the autumn of his life, Rhodes, the “King of Diamonds”, hires the young Plaatje as his secretary, and they develop the unlikeliest of friendships, full of humour, warmth and pathos.
But the country is changing and, as Plaatje’s political career begins to dawn, the two are set on a collision course which will change their lives.
In a chat with Tonight, Dukas said during his research, which included information off the National Library of New Zealand’s website (paperspast.natlib.govt.nz), he found that there was a defining moment in Raaf’s military career that came after a battle and successful retreat with the Matabele.
According to the site, research by Sir Ken Markham notes that on December 18, 1893, Raaf returned his column safely to the relief force, led by Rhodes, and was publicly commended by Rhodes for ensuring the safety of the soldiers.
“So there is a connection from way back, which is fantastic. I didn’t even know about it until my mom told me about it after I spoke to her about Hinterland,” said Dukas.
Commenting on Buwalda’s take on Rhodes and Plaatje, Dukas said: “I think it’s fantastic. It so clearly marks the fall of Rhodes and the rise of Sol Plaatje.
“I think it’s a beautiful relationship that Duncan has sketched. His research has been great in sketching these characters for us. It’s a wonderful way to look at what would have happened if they had possibly met, what they could have and would have discussed and how it would have turned out.
“Sometimes it’s not the events in our lives but rather the people we meet that lead us to look at ourselves and see our frailties, faults and failures. Certainly Plaatje’s friendship with Rhodes (in the play) leads Rhodes to this introspection and to a change in Rhodes. Even though the systems set in place cannot be changed, a change has begun in Rhodes, if that makes any sense at all,” he added.
He said the creative collaboration from three different cities, being Durban, Joburg and Cape Town, has been an exciting journey so far.
“I’ve met with Caroline Smart (director, Durban) twice. She is such a talented, awesome lady, from whom I can learn so much.”
Sipho Mahlatshana, who plays Plaatje, said after researching these characters and based on Rhodes and Plaatje’s personalities, this could have probably happened had they actually met.
“To do justice to this role I’ve had to do some serious research, finding out about Plaatje because when I go out on stage people will expect to see him on stage. He was a very educated and respected man. It has all been very exciting.”
Written and produced by Buwalda, directed by Smart, with Dukas and Mahlatshana in the lead roles, Greg Parvess as Colonel Robert Kekewich and Frank Graham as Dr Thomas Smartt – Hinterland stages on the Fringe Programme at the NG Kerk in Grahamstown from July 3 to 8. It plays at Joburg’s Theatre on the Square early next year.