Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review The Island

The Island
by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona

Sentences For Life

The Island is a 1973 play of the Cold War South African Apartheid era. Two men are imprisoned on an unnamed island lashed under the regime of a brutal guard. Brutalised by pointless hard labour during the day, they return to each other's company in a cell with only rolled up mats for bedding and a pail in the corner

The gruelling and cruel routine is about to be disrupted - the prisoners have obtained permission for a concert and John (Mark Springer) persuades his cellmate Winston (Edward Dede) to join him in a two-hander production of Greek tragedy Antigone. But the biggest disruption comes from news John receives which threatens the solidarity of the pair. 

The drama charted the experiences of imprisoned actors Norman Ntshinga and Welcome Duru which included a production of Antigone with Nelson Mandela playing King CreonRobben Island is always unnamed in The Island, not for any abstract artistic reason, but because any indication of a connection with contemporary places and events in the 1970s would have landed everyone with a sentence - on Robben Island.

The current production, directed by John Terry, proves that The Island has lost none of its power, even if there is now another 21st century context for the audience.

Designer Sammy Dowson's spartan in-the-round raised plinth set triples up, aided by the effective lighting of Alexandra Stafford. First there is the punishing hard labour on the beach where the men, forced to be mute, are set to digging and building up mounds of sand; then the prison cell;  finally the performance space for the play-within-the-play.

The play was a collaboration between writer Athol Fugard with improvisations by actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona. They used material given to them by actor Ntshinga, who was arrested for his political activities on the eve of a production of Antigone in 1965 and was replaced by Kani, and Duru.  

At the time Fugard was working with the group of black actors, the Serpent Players, based in New Brighton, a township just outside of Port Elizabeth, putting on European classics including Sophocles's Greek tragedy and Jean Genet's Deathwatch.

The Island has a tough-minded tenderness. It deliberately grows in complexity both artistically and in ideas as it progresses, while conveying a real situation. In this it shares, somewhat ironically bearing in mind the Cold War situation, the inguenuity of plays produced under Soviet oppression.

Terry wisely takes The Island at face value in a straightforward production which leads the audience from  the grunts of tormented physical effort on the seashore, through the incoherence as they first collapse in the cell.

We partake in the gradual regaining of their humanity and humour, going from monosyllabism to their recollections of life off the island, both accurate and imaginative, debate  and eventually to the resonant script learnt by the characters for the  performance.

The personalities of the two prisoners gradually emerge with engrossing performances by Mark Springer as the single-minded play impressario John and Edward Dede as the increasingly eloquent, put-upon Winston.

Circumstances have obviously changed since this courageous play was first put on but the honesty of the piece still cuts through the years.

The play works on several different levels. The figure of Antigone embodies both weakness and strength. There's also the bravery of the original collaborators (in the best sense of the word) in acknowledging the play's own distance from prison life - neither Kani nor Ntshona ever served prison sentences, as far as we can tell - and the ruthlessness men needed to survive.

For The Island tackles apartheid oppression, injustice and the law, questions of responsibility. However it also exposes the unfair hierarchies within the ranks of the oppressed. For a play that poses uncomfortable but necessary questions, showing why drama at its most truthful is both uncomfortable and necessary, it's a green light.

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