The Island (L-R) Mark Springer as John and Edward Dede as Winston (c) Joel Fildes
In this humbling, emotionally nuanced and exhilarating production, Mark Springer and Edward Dede not only do justice to the inimitable John Kani and Winston Ntshona, but also manage to honour both the noble spirit of the anti-apartheid struggle and indomitable human resilience in the face of great evil, be it in South Africa or elsewhere on earth.
The Island will for
ever be synonymous with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the two black South African actors who devised te play in collaboration with white South African dramatist Athol Fugard in 1973 and who played the two lead roles (to which they lend their names) for almost three decades in productions throughout the world.
I consider myself immensely privileged to have seen these two thespian titans playing The Island for the last time in 2002 at the Old Vic theatre in London. Now, a new production of this timeless, enduring classic is being staged by the Chipping Norton Players at the Southwark Playhouse, this time with Mark Springer and Edward Dede – two talented black British actors, in the iconic roles of John and Winston. From the Cotswolds to Cape Town is a journey I would urge you all to make in their company.
Set on Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for many years, the play tells the story of two cellmates and friends who have been imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities. One may soon be released, whereas the other is serving a life sentence. As they prepare to perform Sophocles’ Antigone for the forthcoming prison concert, they identify with the Greek tragedy’s characters, and in so doing not only expose the tensions in their own friendship, but also the suffocating oppression around them.
Directed with sensitivity, panache and bleak humour by John Terry, this is a moving, visceral production of an intelligent and exceedingly powerful, canonical play. With its moments of heart-rending pathos and its brutal jokes, it is both tender and loud, yet never histrionic, and often disconcertingly funny in its exploration of the physical and mental vicissitudes of incarceration and spiritual resilience in the face of privation and hardship.
The (very) long opening scene of shovelling sand on the beach and the abject futility (not to mention mind-numbing repetition) of such an act reminds us not only of Sisyphus, his boulder and his existential plight, together with the intense physicality required of the two actors in these strenuous roles, but also of the inhumane punishments cunningly devised to break the will and spirit by the apartheid authorities.
The Island (L-R) Edward Dede as Winston and Mark Springer as John (c) Joel Fildes
Directed with sensitivity, panache and bleak humour by John Terry, this is a moving, visceral production of an intelligent and exceedingly powerful, canonical play
The play's use of ancient Greek tragedy - namely the production of Antigone which John and Winston are rehearsing in their cell at night with make-shift props – and which serves as a potent mirror for their own situation, is masterful. They perceptively see in the plight of Antigone, charged by Creon, king of Thebes with the crime of burying her own brother Polyneices and thereby of flagrantly defying his decree and the law of the state, their own stark defiance of the tyrannical apartheid regime and the draconian punishment meted out to them.
The Island is a harmonious marriage of contemporary political drama and the Western classical tradition. Furthermore, it is also a seamless fusion of consciously didactic art in the service of politics and art for art's sake, yet one which never feels heavy handed or overtly, tediously political.
Fugard, like many post-colonial writers, including Martinican playwright Aimé Césaire and St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, deftly uses the classical canon to critique and subvert the oppressive ideology of the West, in this case apartheid. Given the sheer universality of Greek myths, great intellectual force and emotional resonance are derived from the drawing of contemporary parallels with this famous classical story.
There are those who suggest that since apartheid in South Africa is now over (and has been nominally since 1994), the play is therefore dated and thus assert that its relevance in a post-apartheid world has diminished. Such attitudes are painfully myopic. The myriad complexities, disappointments and broken dreams of the tragedy that is post-apartheid South Africa notwithstanding - where those old Manichaean polarities of black as good and white as evil are less obvious - of course The Island is still relevant, embarrassingly so, in fact, since the play is principally about defiance, resistance and resilience and the triumph of the human spirit over appalling adversity. As with all great art, it successfully combines both the specific and universal and speaks with sincerity to now.
The Island eloquently and elegiacally explores man’s inhumanity to man – sadly a perennial, ubiquitous and fundamental part of the human condition, together with notions of human solidarity, brotherhood and the desire for freedom and dignity in the face of suffering. As such, The Island will always be relevant.
“Write in order to make the world a better place” is an adage often quoted by authors as their principal motivation for putting pen to paper. Fugard continues in the illustrious tradition of great writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Albert Camus and Alex La Guma – to name but a few seminal giants who did just that - who wrote in order to protest at injustice, to cast off the yoke of oppression and to elevate the human spirit to a higher level.
In this humbling, emotionally nuanced and exhilarating production, Mark Springer and Edward Dede not only do justice to the inimitable John Kani and Winston Ntshona (convincing South African accents are notoriously hard for non-South Africans to do, but these black Brits do an admirable job), but also manage to honour both the noble spirit of the anti-apartheid struggle and indomitable human resilience in the face of great evil, be it in South Africa or elsewhere on earth.