Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Review by Philip Fisher
John Kani and Winston Ntshona wrote and developedThe Island jointly with South Africa's leading playwright, Athol Fugard. They have been playing the parts in this two-hander since 1973. As a result, the play does not now even have a director since the movements and lines are so deeply ingrained in their psyches.
The world has changed very significantly since this play was first performed. In Cape Town in 1973, it was illegal for the three playwrights to meet, let alone collaborate on a subversive piece of literature. The dreaded Robben Island was packed with political prisoners who were condemned to hard labour for many years, generally entirely as a result of their political views. Amongst them was a man who was subsequently to be released amid worldwide acclaim and voted President of his country, Nelson Mandela.
The Island sets out to show that humanity, honour and dignity can survive in the most horrific circumstances.
The two characters, John and Winston, shackled together for much of the time, share a tiny cell, a single mug and even a single wash rag. They must spend much of each day carrying out futile labour under the eye of the brutal Commandant. However, it is impossible for the authorities to control their thoughts.
The play starts with over ten minutes of mime. At the end of this period, you can understand the nature and pointlessness of the hard labour that these political prisoners were condemned to. In a brilliant mime, the two actors, by no means young men after thirty years on the road, give their all in depicting the end of yet another tiring working day. During this period, not a word is said as they would be risking their lives to speak.
When they return to their cell at night, they are able to bolster each other up like a married couple. Their characters begin to emerge as they recover from their work. John is the dreamy idealist who is desperate to make a success of their two-man production of Antigone which will be a key part of the camp concert. The perhaps more belligerent but less intellectual Winston would prefer to sit and rest. John's cajoling and Winston's reluctance are perfect.
While the subject matter may seem very grim, the playwrights ensure that humour is not too far away. In order to entertain themselves, the men relive happy experiences. Thus they do their own internal video production of a cowboy movie and then John decides that it is time to call home and find out how the boys are doing at the bar. This is absolutely hilarious.
The play builds up with an impeccably modelled structure to the finale, which shows the parallels between the ancient Greece of Sophocles and the modern South Africa. The remarkably subversive two-man production of Antigone must have sent shivers down the spines of the ruling South African government when the play was first performed. Even in the freer world of the 21st century, the indomitable courage of the prisoners of Robben Island and other political activists who helped free their country from tyranny shines through.
This play has everything, humour, poignancy, real drama and, in particular exceptionally fine acting from both John Kani and Winston Ntshona. It is to be hoped that on this, their last run of the play in the United Kingdom, each will win major acting awards.
This is the final opportunity to catch this historic event and should be high on the list of theatregoers' plays to see this Spring. The play runs at the Old Vic until 30th April.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.