Southwark Playhouse, 5th June 2017
The Island was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, whose other major work is Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and first performed, illegally, by the writers to an integrated audience in Cape Town in 1973. It was devised and rehearsed in secret under the threat of government censorship, when even discussion of the conditions in the infamous prison on Robben Island was prohibited. It takes inspiration from a performance of Antigone in 1970 on Robben Island by a group of inmates including Nelson Mandela as Creon.
For these reasons alone you should see this play. For those under 40 (and there were a number at this performance – good on them) I assume that the reality of apartheid is hard to grasp. This play, and the spirited performances delivered by Edward Dede and Mark Springer under the direction of John Terry (of Chipping Norton not Chelsea), is a shocking indictment of this regime, but also a universal reminder of how the state can still repress today. The two actors play John and Winston, who are cell mates on Robben Island, and who are planning to stage their own version of the trial scene from Antigone. It skilfully charts, through reminisces, their three years of shared captivity, their families beyond the prison, the reasons for their incarceration, and the intense friendship, indeed brotherhood, which keeps them defiant despite the injustice they are suffering.
The play opens with fifteen minutes of wordless, and prop-less, acting out of the pointless and back breaking work they are compelled to undertake – shifting sand to each other. They are then forced to run whilst shackled together whilst being beaten. It is uncomfortable to watch – that is the intention – and leaves you to ruminate over why this would ever be done to someone. The two actors make this imaginary pain feel very real. If you are getting fidgety after fifteen minutes of acting try 27 years locked up in this place it seems to say.
Thereafter there are few conscious reminders of their captivity – no guards (the unseen Hodoshe represents their captors and the whole apartheid machinery) or any other characters, and a near completely bare stage. The play instead focuses on what they do for, and say to, each other to keep their spirits strong and cling to the ideals of freedom. The dynamic shifts when John is told his appeal has been successful and will be released. The last part of the play sees the enactment of the scene from Antigone, where Antigone accepts her fate because she has done the right thing and thereby unmasks Creon as a tyrant hiding behind the law, and this is where the real power of the play is unlocked. What was true in Sophocles’s age was true in racist South Africa and is still true today.
Anyway go and see it. If it you find it a bit dour or hard work it might just remind you how free you are. And maybe make you think about the redemptive power of the theatre. And how the bastards in this world will always lose out in the end. And that surely is a good thing.