There is nothing in my own experience that could possibly come close to the sort of suffering and cruelty portrayed in The Island, set in apartheid-era South Africa, where even a description of what it would be like to be ‘free’ – whatever that really means – by Winston (Edward Dede) is a cause of pain for John (Mark Springer). A note in the show’s programme, however, encourages audiences not to view The Island merely as a respectful acknowledgement to one of history’s great injustices. Today, “there are many Islands the world over, and many Johns and Winstons who face grave consequences” for standing up for themselves and for others. The brutality may not have direct relevance, but the sort of questions the play subtly asks are.
There’s appropriately minimalist staging for a play set in the prison on Robben Island. The first page of the script contains nothing but stage directions. The actions prescribed are carried out faithfully but are mimed, such that it is not immediately clear what is happening to anyone who hasn’t encountered the play before one way or another, particularly with the absence of dialogue. That said, it seemed to last a tad longer that it should, and when a scene change finally came, the point about pointless manual labour – digging holes that were only filled in again – had been more than sufficiently made.
The opening scene was so long I had time to think of a pithy summary of ‘the beautiful game’ I once heard. A game of professional-level football is apparently best described as 22,000 people (per se) desperately in need of exercise going to see 22 people desperately in need of a rest. The analogy doesn’t quite fit, of course: these men at work cannot even speak while on shift, for if they did, they may pay for it with their lives. And as far as this scene goes, it is not easy to act as though engaged in heavy lifting and digging for so long, so consistently, literally carrying nothing on stage but convincingly behaving as though they are. On one level, it’s mind-numbingly repetitive. On another, it’s extraordinary acting. What the opening scene also does is demonstrate the slow passage of time that comes with incarceration.
Impressively, no prior knowledge of Antigone, a version of which becomes a play within the play, is required to understand the inmates’ production of it. Equally impressively, the audience passively takes on the roles of other prisoners who have come to see this performance of Antigone, further drawing the audience into the play (and the play within the play), a subtle and effective breaching of the fourth wall.
But the play is, overall, a hard slog, and rightly so – I wouldn’t want to come out of a play of this nature with a smile on my face. This was a very personal story, devoid of wider arguments about trade sanctions and international condemnation of apartheid. The close friendship between these two men sharing a prison cell is remarkably believable. The costumes, I’m afraid to say, are less so, very clean and presentable, making the characters look they are about to indulge on a Saturday night out in Camden Town rather than another night cooped up on Robben Island.
Some behaviours displayed by the pair may seem infantile (“Take your Antigone and shove it up your a*se”), but in the circumstances, they have some credibility, and I couldn’t help having empathy towards their moment of ecstasy in an imaginary telephone call to a friend on the outside. Even here, though, tenderness comes through: “Tell her it’s starting to get cold now, but the worst is still coming.” In terms of staging, the ‘in the round’ setting was used well, with blocking and movement taking into account the various sightlines – it’s surprising how many productions I’ve seen over the years that have sadly failed to get this right. An equally powerful and poignant production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Two men, unlikely friends, stagger through days of crippling prison work, breaking free in nights of playful escapism and ecstatic, dreamlike joy. With just scraps from their cell, they prepare for a performance of Antigone in front of the prisoners and guards – an act of defiance from people who have lost everything they have to lose.
With gut-wrenching emotion, soaring beauty and exquisite simplicity, this great drama of defiance and determination draws on the stories that linger from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner.
The Island will be performed in an intimate, in-the-round setting.
The Theatre Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster Present The Island
by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Director John Terry
Designer Samantha Dowson
Movement Diane Alison Mitchell
Lighting Designer Alexandra Stafford
The Island is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd
31 MAY – 24 JUNE 2017
Start Time 8pm
Matinee Starts 3.30pm
Running Time 95 minutes approx. (no interval)