Remarkable Robben Island stories in 53 Degrees

17 March 2003

Long swim: 53 Degrees tells the true story of Florrie Berndt – daughter of the Robben Island baker and nurse at the island's infirmary – and her efforts to become the first woman to swim from Robben Island to the Cape Town harbour in 1926.

ACCLAIMED physical performer, theatre educator, partner in Magnet Theatre, (and mother of two) Jennie Reznek, makes a welcome return to the stage in a multi-media physical theatre performance, 53 Degrees, between March 17 and April 5, 2003.

53 Degrees will be presented at The Intimate on UCT's Orange Street Campus as part of the Cape Town Festival. Reznek is the co-ordinator of movement studies at the UCT Drama School where she has taught since 1995. She also obtained her drama degree from UCT.

The play, which debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year, tells the true story of Florrie Berndt, daughter of the Robben Island baker and nurse at the Island's infirmary, and her efforts to become the first woman to swim from Robben Island to the Cape Town harbour in 1926.

Fourteen athletes entered the first-ever organised Robben Island swim, sponsored by the Cape Argus newspaper. Only one, 15 year-old Peggy Duncan, completed the race. Berndt was the only other swimmer to come close to finishing.

She battled against an icy current for over 13 hours, going nowhere. The temperature of the water was 53° Fahrenheit, colder than the English Channel. She drank a little Bovril and ate a banana. Berndt represents the extraordinary determination of the unyielding female spirit. Her swim takes us through ten miles of icy cold, shark-infested waters to an astonishing awakening.

53 Degrees is also about a woman, a swimmer too, coming back to professional life after seven years of “exile”, bearing and rearing children. Extensive research into the life and living environment of Berndt took Reznek on a fascinating journey into Robben Island's early history.

Another Island story explored in the play is that of the Xhosa prophet Makana. Makana was imprisoned for leading the historic attack on the fort in Grahamstown in 1819 and drowned off Blouberg beach during an unsuccessful escape from the Island in the late nineteenth century.

Mark Fleishman, Reznek's partner in Magnet Theatre, one of South Africa's longest-standing physical theatre companies, directs the play. Fleishman has taught at the UCT Drama School since 1994. He has published several academic and related articles and has acted as external examiner at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University.

Performers Gosekwang Poonyane and Gary Naidoo accompany Reznek on her journey. The award-winning company has joined forces with visual artists Fritha Langerman and Carine Zaayman and composer Jane Rademeyer to create this multi-media event.

53 Degrees was sponsored by the National Arts Council and Pro Helvetia (the Arts Council of Switzerland) and was supported by the UCT.

53 Degrees will be performed at The Intimate theatre from March 17-22 and again from March 27 to April 5 at 20h00 (no show Monday, March 31). Book at Computicket or call 4807173, or buy your ticket at the venue on the night. Pre-booking is encouraged since limited seating is available.

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