Steve Wright looks forward to a new production of Athol Fugard’s seminal The Island, which held up a mirror to South Africa’s apartheid regime and continues to resonate today
“The nature of the piece, and the fact it takes place mostly within a prison cell, makes things quite intense. Working in the round with minimal props and staging also means there is nowhere to hide!” Actor Mark Springer is explaining the unique challenges and excitements in staging The Island, the play devised by South African playwright Athol Fugard in partnership with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona.
Two men, unlikely friends, stagger through days of crippling prison work, breaking free in nights of playful escapism and ecstatic, dreamlike joy. With just scraps from their cell, they prepare for a performance of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone in front of the prisoners and guards – an act of defiance from people who have lost everything.
Set in the infamous island prison where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner, The Island has a powerful history. For one thing, as we shall see, it draws parallels between Antigone’s situation and the situation of black political prisoners. Then there’s the history of its creation and first performances.
“The piece was devised by Fugard along with the famous south African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona – the play’s John and Winston,” Mark explains. “Fugard, a white writer, was devising an anti-apartheid piece with two black actors, about activities in Robben Island prison that the State were keen to keep secret, so this was an extremely dangerous project for all involved. John and Winston were arrested for performing the piece on a few occasions, and rehearsals had to take place in secret.”
The play also points up similarities between Antigone’s situation and the plight of black South Africans under apartheid. “Antigone defies her city of Thebes by burying one of her brothers (an enemy of the state) against its wishes,” Mark explains. “Through this brave act, which puts her life at risk, Antigone represents John, Winston and all the opponents of apartheid who have that same level of defiance flowing through their veins.
“When John and Winston perform the piece in front of the prison authorities, not only do we have an effective use of a play within a play but, as the drama unfolds, there is a realisation that this act of defiance may bring serious consequences at the hands of the prison authorities.”
“Antigone’s situation echoes what many black South Africans were facing – oppression by unjust laws,” adds Mark’s co-star Edward Dede. “Antigone is seen as a freedom fighter, taking a stand and sacrificing her life in order to challenge the harsh laws of Thebes. Antigone’s plight becomes a form of protest – and carries important significance for John and Winston, performing this Greek tragedy for their fellow inmates and wardens. It sends a clear message, denouncing apartheid and racial segregation (significantly, the play was also performed by Nelson Mandela during his own incarceration on Robben Island).”
Does The Island hold some enduring lessons and relevance, long after both Robben Island prison and apartheid have ceased to exist? “Unfortunately there are still plenty of political prisons around the world that exist in order to stifle voices like those of John and Winston. Do we learn enough from the errors and unjust behaviours of the past? Sadly, I would have to say, ‘no, we don’t’.”
The Island is at Tobacco Factory Theatres from May 23-27. For more info, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/the-island