national Arts Festival Banner

Sunday, August 22, 2021


Witnessing Sandra Prinsloo in her early 70’s commanding the stage is why I am alive, it is why theatre must be kept alive. (Review by Thomie Holtzhausen)

The Playhouse Company’s 25th Annual South African Women’s Arts Festival offered Durbanites a very special treat this year.  Kamphoerdie verhaal van Susan Nell  which featured South African theatre legend, Sandra Prinsloo.

The drama is based on the best-selling and debut novel Kamphoer by Francois Smit and the non-fiction publication The Boer Whore by Nico Moolman, and has been adapted for the stage by Cecilia du Toit, in collaboration with Sandra Prinsloo and Lara Foot.

Prinsloo appears in the challenging role of Susan Nell, who faced a horrible ordeal during the South African War (1899 – 1902) in the Winburg concentration camp.

Directed by international award winning Foot, the play was awarded Best National Theatre Debut at the festival’s Blinker Awards. Prinsloo won the national 2020 kykNET Fiësta Theatre Award for Best performance in a Solo Production, while the production also received a nomination nod for Best adaption of an Existing Work. It was further nominated for Best performance in a Solo production at the 2020 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and nominated for four awards (Best Actress, Best Director, Best performance in a solo production and Best Overall Production) at 2019 Aardklop National Arts Festival. 

It also enjoyed rave reviews at both the Artscape Women’s Festival and the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. The novel Kamphoer was nominated for the Jan Rabie Rapport Award, an ATKV Award and was shortlisted for the 2018 Sunday Times Literary Awards.

The play is set against the back-drop of the South African War which lasted from 1899–1902. The British operated concentration camps in South Africa. The camps had originally been set up by the British Army as refugee camps in order to provide refuge for civilian families who had been forced to abandon their homes for any reason which was related to the war.

According to historian Thomas Pakenham, when Lord Kitchener took command of the British forces in late 1900, he introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign. An epidemic of measles killed thousands. Lord Kitchener initiated plans to flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organised like a sporting shoot, with success defined by a weekly 'bag' of killed, captured and wounded, and sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children.

As Boer farms were destroyed by the British under their "Scorched Earth" policy—including the systematic destruction of crops and the slaughtering or removal of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms—to prevent the Boers from resupplying themselves from a home base, many tens of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly moved into the camps. The Boer War concentration camp system was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted, and the first in which some whole regions had been depopulated.

The vast majority of Boers who remained in the local camps were women and children. Over 26,000 women and children perished in these concentration camps.

Susan Nell (Sandra Prinsloo) and her parents were attendants on a farm before her father was killed early in the war and she and her mother ended up in the concentration camp. There she is brutally raped by two British officers and a joiner.

She falls off the wagon that takes corpses daily to the cemetery and is discovered by a Sotho man, Tiisetso, who realizes she is not dead. He and a Sotho woman, Mamello, take care of Susan in a cave until she is strong enough to travel.

She survives the traumatic experience and qualifies as a psychiatric nurse in the Netherlands. Sixteen years later, she travels to England during the First World War and, while serving at a military hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, she recognises a patient as one of her rapists. With this unfortunate reunion, Susan has to relive the rape trauma once again and is confronted with the pain that comes with humiliation of her past.

Prinsloo delivers a remarkable performance. Personally, Prinsloo shaped my love for the theatre as a youngster - along with Marius Weyers, Katinka Heyns and others - and being asked to write a review was almost surreal; how can I not bow to this formidable woman?

Attending the play at the Playhouse Company’s Loft Theatre accompanied by my eldest sister (who relates very closely to the subject matter) was almost a spiritual experience. The play and certainly Prinsloo’s performance made life all that more real. Men can sympathise with gender based violence, but, seldom can we truly understand. As Prinsloo’s character explains, “there are no words I can lay before you”.

I reflect differently on the horrendous acts of men that brought about the MeToo Movement. I understand a bit more.  Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell brings a painful reality to life.

But selfishly – witnessing Sandra Prinsloo in her early 70’s commanding the stage is why I am alive, it is why theatre must be kept alive. Viva Ms Prinsloo, viva! - Thomie Holtzhausen