The Island will forever be synonymous with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the two black South African actors who devised the play in collaboration with white South African dramatist Athol Fugard in 1973, and who played the two lead roles (to which they lent their names) for almost three decades in productions throughout the world.
I consider myself immensely privileged to have seen these two thespian titans star in 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 at the Young Vic Theatre, this time with Daniel Poyser and Jimmy Akingbola, two obscenely talented black British actors, in the iconic roles of John and Winston.
Set on Robben Island, South Africa, 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 panache and bleak humor by Alex Brown, this is a formidable production of an intelligent and exceedingly powerful play. With its moments of heartrending 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 long opening scene of shoveling sand on the beach and the abject futility of such an act, together with the intense physicality required of the two actors in these strenuous roles, remind us not only of Sisyphus, his boulder and his existential plight but also of the inhumane punishments cunningly devised to break the will and spirit.
The play’s use of ancient Greek tragedy—namely the production of Antigone that John and Winston rehearse in their cell at night with makeshift props and that serves as a potent mirror to 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 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, in essence, 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 that 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 foolishly 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 society has immeasurably diminished. Such attitudes are painfully myopic. Of course The Island is still relevant—embarrassingly so, in fact, since the play is principally about the triumph of the human spirit amid appalling adversity and, as with all great art, successfully combines both the specific and universal. 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 injustice, to cast off the yoke of oppression and to raise the human spirit to a higher level.