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Thursday, March 20, 2014


(Alison Cassels)

Tour de force performance by Alison Cassells as the feisty and inimitable Emily Hobhouse. (Review by Caroline Smart)

The intimacy of the 100-seater Seabrooke’s Theatre at DHS is the perfect venue for Dear Mrs Steyn, a one-woman play directed by Thomie Holtzhausen and starring Alison Cassells.

Originally compiled by Wilna Snyman and Deon Opperman, the play is based on letters written by Emily Hobhouse during the Anglo Boer War to her good friend Rachel Isabella Steyn. Steyn was the wife of President M T Steyn of the Orange River Colony whom Hobhouse met during her stay in Bloemfontein whilst visiting the concentration camps.

Emily Hobhouse was a British welfare campaigner who was invited to South Africa to become secretary of the women's branch of the South African Conciliation Committee. She was a major force to be reckoned with and has rightly taken her place in the annals of history both in South Africa and England.

In her letters, she relates her life from the time she came to South Africa in 1900. Her initial warm response to the beauty of Cape Town harbour from the decks of the ship quickly changed to one of shock and dismay when she found herself staggered by the magnitude of the task ahead of her.

Frustrated by government red tape and the attitude of the colonial services, she determinedly fought against her detractors – often at the highest level - to do her best for the welfare of the thousands of women and children in the atrocious conditions of the concentration camps.

Hobhouse died in London in 1926 and her ashes were ensconced in a niche in the National Women's Monument at Bloemfontein. She was travelling to Bloemfontein to attend the unveiling of the Monument in 1913 but had to curtail her journey because of ill health. The monument was designed by famed South African sculptor Anton von Wouw and inside it is a central bronze group, sketched by Hobhouse depicting her agonising memory of watching a child die.

At the unveiling, Mrs Steyn read the presentation that Hobhouse would have given and this is recorded in the programme of Dear Mrs Steyn. It brings the spirit of Hobhouse very much to life.

In the sure and experienced hands of Alison Cassells, what could so easily become a depressing and merciless tale of the deprivations of war and man’s inhumanity to man becomes a splendid memorable to this feisty and indomitable woman.

Cassels puts in a tour de force performance in an impeccably crisp upper-class English accent giving credibility to the times. She moves seamlessly through this hour-long monologue giving full value to the play’s moods and nuances – as well as its ironic humour.

I am delighted that Holtzhausen has finally achieved his dream – that of owning his own theatre company and producing works that have a strong South African relevance. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of more thought-provoking and stimulating productions to come.

Apart from its capacity to reach an audience which loves good theatre, Dear Mrs Steyn should be a must for any high school pupil.

Presented by It’sTaboo Productions, Dear Mrs Steyn runs at Seabrooke’s Theatre, Durban High School (DHS) until March 29. Tickets R80 (R40pp block bookings of 50 or more).

School groups and organisations are invited to book a performance during this period, daytime performances are also possible.

For group bookings email Thomie on  Online bookings can also be made on - Caroline Smart