Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Island

Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
The Theatre Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster
Southwark Playhouse (The Little)

Edward Dede as Winston and Mark Springer as John Credit: Joel Fildes
Mark Springer as John and Edward Dede as Winston Credit: Joel Fildes
Edward Dede as Winston and Mark Springer as John Credit: Joel Fildes

Those who saw John Kani and Winston Ntshona in this play at the Royal Court in 1973 or thirty years later at the National or the Old Vic will not have forgotten it.

The Island was created in secret by white playwright Fugard and two black actors who had worked together in the Serpent Players, a group formed by African industrial and service workers in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. It was first performed at The Space in Capetown right under the noses of the South African apartheid regime in 1973.

John Kani’s brother and many others they knew were in gaol but the germ for the play also came from Fugard directing Sophocles’ Antigone with them. The actor playing the title role had been arrested before they opened and later they heard was doing a one-man version for his fellow prisoners. Three years earlier, in the prison camp on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela had played Creon in a production of Antigone staged by fellow inmates.

Even mention of Robben Island was then illegal in South Africa but here was a play set somewhere unnamed (but it did not need to be) where other prisoners are staging Antigone, the earliest known play in which someone takes a moral stand against authority regardless of the cost. It has carried a potent charge ever since. In occupied Paris, Jean Anouilh created his own version, a play that German authority would see as a classic revival but French patriots saw as subversively defiant.

To those who lived through the apartheid era or opposed it from outside, The Island will be perennially powerful, but does it still have the same impact on younger generations?

Well, there are few things in theatre, especially when played in an intimate setting, as moving as this play’s opening. It’s a ploy long used by authority, both penal and military, for breaking resistance to employ the exhaustion and tedium of totally pointless but strenuous activity. Here two prisoners, John and Winston, shovel stone in a quarry. One loads it into a wheelbarrow and wheels it to a pile in other place. The other shovels from that pile and transports it back again.

There is no actual stone, there are no wheelbarrows, the actors mime them. Only gradually do you realise exactly what is happening. Two loads, four loads, ten loads: there is heavy breathing, panting, muscles tremble, but they keep on for unseen guards are watching, worse punishment looming. For fifteen minutes, we see increasing pain, but their spirits not yet broken. They may be miming but that is real sweat dripping.

When at last a horn signals stop, they move with wrists and ankles pressed closed to each other’s, miming shackled.

This isn’t just political play; it is also a study of the volatile relationship between people forced together. There is a bonding and a pleasure in company but also resentments, conflict and jealousy. Winston (Edward Dede) isn’t very happy at being asked to act as a woman and play Antigone. When John (Mark Springer) discovers that on appeal his ten-year sentence has been reduced to three and he will be released in three month's time, Winston is pleased for him but jealous too, resents losing his support, facing many years more confinement.

Mark Springer and Edward Dede make an excellent partnership, the fluctuations of the relationship subtly charted. They play with very strong African accents and phrasing which may be authentic but dictate a slow pace and sometimes make it difficult for English ears to follow, though the actors maintain a feeling of fluency.

It is a play that makes big demands on its actors who deliver an intense ninety minutes of theatre. John Terry’s direction allows no let up, only a brief hiatus when the horn sounds to mark work ending or beginning and Sammy Dowson’s design strips things to the minimum with just a bucket and a couple of blankets and props made from frayed rope and string for the Antigone performance.

The Island now stands as a potent memorial to those who were the victims and prisoners of apartheid and everything Robben Island stood for but, like Sophocles’ Antigone, it also stands as a statement against any form of dictatorship, against the eroding of human rights. Kani and Ntshona gave their last performances a decade ago but there was a revival at the Young Vic in 2013 and this is a play that won’t date and a production worth seeing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton