Stark Exposure

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Island' by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Soho Theatre, London

'The Island' is Robben Island, South Africa's high security prison for black opponents during the apartheid era. It was notorious for its harsh conditions and the brutal treatment of political prisoners.

John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who co-wrote the play with Athol Fugard in 1973, perform the play. In the restaging of 'The Island', Kani and Ntshona recreate the claustrophobia, dependence and comradeship of two men who have shared a cell for almost three years. The sparse set, consisting of a bucket of water for both washing and drinking, two mats and two blankets, aptly portrays the bleakness of their situation.

John chooses to perform a scene from 'Antigone', a Greek tragedy, as the Saturday show for prisoners and warders. The rehearsals for this performance with Winston reveal the personal dynamics of their relationship, which are at once comic and deeply moving. When Winston refuses to learn the plot of 'Antigone' after a hard day's digging, John finally demands that he do it for the leaders of the struggle.

The choice of 'Antigone' and its performance act as a vehicle for exposing the moral and political bankruptcy of the South African state and its legal system. The performance of John Kani and Winston Ntshona is mesmerising, taking you through the highs and lows of their relationship as prisoners. The performance of 'Antigone' is a powerful polemic delivered with great dignity by Winston as Antigone.

Although 'The Island' reflects a reality of South Africa at a particular time, it also reflects universal realities in all ages--wherever one group oppresses another. 'The Island' is a powerful reminder of the ability of human beings to use their imagination even in the most brutal circumstances to ridicule and expose the injustices of their oppressors. A remarkable and highly recommended play.