The Rivonia Trial: Court case on stage

THE show starts at a restaurant where a group of singers perform struggle songs, worming their way into the Drama Theatre of the South African State Theatre in Pretoria as the audience follows.

The crowd is led through a narrow foyer, adorned with paintings of struggle stalwarts in the 1960s. The passage is so narrow, we had to squeeze in one by one. It resembles jail. We are led into the theatre by men and women wearing the uniforms of prison warders, barking orders in Afrikaans for us to get into the theatre.

The stage is set for what became a three-and-a-half-hour thrilling theatrical masterpiece co-written by Aubrey Sekhabi, Mandla Dube and Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, and co-directed by Sekhabi and Grootboom.

Once on stage, the audience is confronted with an intimidating court atmosphere as they come face to face with court officials .... the judge, defence lawyers, court clerks and prosecutors.

In the beginning it appears that it could send some people nodding off, thinking of the three-and-a-half-hours ahead. But then something suddenly happens.

This is the atmosphere that prevails at the opening of one of the most politically significant theatre pieces staged post-1994 in South Africa, The Rivonia Trial.

This play captures an event that changed the course of the struggle for liberation in the country, the Rivonia Trial.

It condemned Nelson Mandela, freedom fighters and human activists both black and white to lengthy periods of excruciating imprisonment in 1964.

That unusual alliance that cut through the umbilical cord division based on race and ideology (communists and nationalists, whites and blacks were all arrested), played itself out at the Palace of Justice as chief prosecutor Percy Yutar tried to build a case against these freedom fighters.

Even though the evidence weighed heavily against the accused, the going was not easy for this learned man of the law, Yutar, who took the case almost personally and overzealously.

This drama of how the safe ANC house at Lilies Farm, in suburban Rivonia, was raided and conspirators including Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were arrested, is played out in Sekhabi's court, The Rivonia Trial.

The acting is good, the directing is superb, making the three-and-a-half- hours that one has to sit in the theatre seem like one hour.

The Rivonia Trial has been done so well that one feels the pain that Mandela and the other freedom fighters went through in court.

This historical production boasts a brilliant cast led by talented actors such as Sello Maake Ka Ncube (Nelson Mandela), Seputla Sebogodi (Raymond Mhlaba and Albert Luthuli), Vusi Kunene (Govan Mbeki) and Xolile Shabalala (Winnie Mandela).

The Rivonia Trial, which closes this Sunday, deserves ten out of ten.