Originally published by Exeunt
Shovel, tip, repeat. The monotony on Robben Island continues, a worthless activity that Winston (Edward Dede) and John (Mark Springer) carry out simply because they looked the wrong way at a prison guard that morning. In the first fifteen minutes of The Island, John Terry highlights the crushing futility of existence as Winston and John labour to physical exhaustion.
There are no words here – there is nothing to say. Sweat pours from their brows, muscles strain and legs buckle. Every so often they glance murderously across, knowing that their punishment is only extended by each other’s actions. It’s an effort even to stand by the end, but the prisoners and audience both recognise that the hell is only just beginning.
The Island is a call to arms as much as a cry for help. Writers Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona juxtapose the bleak living conditions and the harsh prisoner treatment with brotherly affection and child-like excitement at the simple joys of life. Winston (Dede) and John (Springer) should be broken men, backs bent in agony and subdued by their life sentences. But instead they retain a sense of humour at anything and everything, from reminiscing about years gone by to bickering about who will play the female character Antigone in an upcoming production. It’s a reminder that though chained down and locked up, they are still free in spirit.
The trial of Antigone rings a number of immediate parallels to the apartheid incarcerations, but Terry focusses on the relationship between the two prisoners themselves instead of on their connection with the wider story. This is a play that Nelson Mandela himself acted in when jailed on Robben Island in 1970, yet the gravitas and impact of this historical event is lost among rope wigs and wooden bras.
It’s only when John (Springer) stands up to deliver the damning speech in the last scene that the magnitude of the script begins to resonate. King Creon condemns Antigone for daring to bury an enemy of Thebes, who just happens to be her brother. But Antigone stands fast to her belief, pleads guilty to the crime and exhibits no remorse. She buried her family member because it was her moral duty to do so, because the belief of human right, of equality, or fraternity, transcend the laws of the land. Playing Antigone, Winston’s final speech immediately contextualises The Island, reminding the audience of how those words rang true only 40 years ago. His delivery lacks poignancy but gets the point across by the sheer power of the text.
What Terry misses in drawing out historical links, he more than makes up for in his focus on humanising the prisoners themselves. Every light-hearted conversation is tinged with the sadness at the situation, games of make-believe that the prisoners are forced to play given the lack of tangible alternatives. They pretend to speak to loved ones using a mug as a phone; they make costumes from bits of scrap metal. But the establishment always finds a way to rip out any happiness – in this case John has his sentence reduced, throwing into stark reality the reminder that Winston is serving life. Winston’s impassioned, irrational reaction is only to be expected, a powerful performance of desperation and fragility. Freedom has a whole new kind of stench; John can count down the days to go, but Winston can only notch up the cellmates that will pass through and leave again.
It’s harrowing to think that The Island is based on a real set of events that occurred only a few decades ago. But it is worse to think that, while Robben Island is no more, there are still today a series of similar situations, unjust imprisonments for “crimes” of homosexuality or the colour of the skin. The Island remembers that prisoners are people, with the same love of life and despair at its loss. Instead of generalising this point, Terry chooses to personalise it. He forgoes the overt political message present in Antigone in favour of a more tender tale of affection and companionship. It implies that both cannot be given equal focus, an error that dampens the potential reach of the production.
Director: John Terry
Producer: The Theatre Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster
Writer: Athol Fugard; John Kani; Winston Ntshona
Design: Samantha Dowson; Alexandra Stafford (lighting)
Cast: Edward Dede; Mark Springer
Images courtesy of Joel Fildes.
The Island plays at Southwark Playhouse until 24 June 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.