Punished for rebelling against the Afrikaan government two black prisoners live out their jail sentence on Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela was held. Between backbreaking manual labour and dreaming of home the two men prepare to perform the trial scene from Greek tragedy Antigone, itself the story of someone defying the state. Naturally, the political and historical significance of South African apartheid hangs painfully over The Island. The play deals with this reprehensible period of black history in a way that, when first produced in 1973, would have been brave and controversial. Its depiction of the inmates’ physical and psychological humiliation is unflinching, made worse by the brief flashes of warmth that punctuate it. That warmth breeds hope for both the characters and the audience, and that hope breeds pain.
Director Abdul Shayek deliberately fuels that hopefulness in the manner with which he designs the play. The rising and falling of Dan Lawrence’s evocative score matches the ebbs and tides of the water surrounding Robben Island, a constant reminder of the characters’ isolation. Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lighting achieves the same effect – when characters John and Winston dream of the outside world the stage takes on a hauntingly bright, almost ethereal, quality. Reality is far dimmer, enhancing the claustrophobia elicited by Becky Davies’ deliberately small jail cell set.
Despite the strength of the design, audience investment into the play doesn’t come immediately. After a powerful introductory sequence the energy seems to drop and, while Joe Shire (John) and Wela Mbusi (Winston) give entertaining individual performances, the chemistry takes time to develop. It’s when the characters properly clash for the first time that there’s a notable shift in energy and the production suddenly kicks up a gear. It’s at this point, when the actors are at full strength, that the performances really come into their own. While there’s certainly light relief in The Island, the play is at its best in its gloomier moments. Misery loves company and, particularly in the final third of the play, Mbusi and Shire make quality bedfellows. Though Shayek deserves credit for his work with the actors, movement director Andile Sotiya arguably makes the biggest impression on their performances. He takes what is already a physically demanding play and injects it with an unexpectedly balletic grace.
While The Island concentrates on one specific period of black history, these same characters and scenarios could emerge anywhere. The beauty of the writing, handled jointly by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is in its ability to be both local and universal. Fio’s production of this harrowing play is both a reminder that such atrocities should not be forgotten, but its also a warning that they’re not yet a thing of the past. Sadly, telling this story in 2018 still feels like a brave decision, but Fio made it and made it well.
The Island is on tour until Nov 9th – for details go here.