Shovel, tip, repeat. The monotony of life on Robben Island is epitomised in the worthless activity that Winston (Edward Dede) and John (Mark Springer) perform simply because they looked the wrong way at a prison guard that morning. In the first fifteen minutes of The Island, director John Terry highlights the crushing futility of the prisoner’s existence as the characters labour to physical exhaustion. There are no words used here – there is, after all, nothing to say. Sweat pours from the men’s brows, muscles strain and legs buckle. Every so often they glance murderously across, knowing that their punishment is only continued by the other’s actions. It’s an effort even to stand by the end, but prisoners and audience alike recognise that the hell is only just beginning.
The Island is a call to arms as much as a cry for help. Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s 1973 play juxtaposes the bleak living conditions and the harsh treatment of inmates on Robben Island with brotherly affection and child-like excitement at the simple joys of life. Winston and John should be broken men, backs bent in agony and subdued by their life sentences. But instead they retain a sense of humour at anything and everything, from reminiscing about years gone by to bickering about who will play the female character of Antigone in an upcoming performance. It’s a reminder that although chained down and locked up, they are still free in spirit.
The trial of Antigone contains a number of immediate parallels to the apartheid incarcerations, but Terry focusses on the relationship between the two prisoners instead of on their connection with the ancient Greek play. Antigone is in fact the same play that Nelson Mandela acted in when jailed on Robben Island in 1970, yet the gravitas and impact of this historical event is lost among the more comical elements of the performance – the rope wigs and wooden bras.
It’s only when John stands up to deliver the damning speech in the last scene that the magnitude of the script begins to resonate. King Creon condemns Antigone for daring to bury her brother, an enemy of Thebes. But Antigone stands fast to her belief that she was correct to do so. She pleads guilty to the crime and exhibits no remorse. She buried her family member because it was her moral duty to do so, because her belief in human rights transcends the laws of the land. Playing Antigone, Winston’s final speech immediately contextualises The Island, reminding the audience of how these same words rang true only 40 years ago. His delivery lacks poignancy but gets the point across by the sheer power of the text.
What Terry misses in drawing out historical links, he more than makes up for in his focus on humanising the prisoners themselves. Every light-hearted conversation is tinged with sadness at the situation, for example the games of make-believe that the prisoners are forced to play out of a lack of tangible alternatives. They pretend to speak to loved ones using a mug as a phone; they make costumes from bits of scrap metal. But the establishment always finds a way to destroy any potential happiness – in this case John has his sentence reduced, throwing into stark reality the fact that Winston is serving life. Winston’s impassioned, irrational reaction is only to be expected, a powerful performance of desperation and fragility. Freedom now has a whole new kind of stench; John can count down the days to go, but Winston can only notch up the cellmates that will pass through and leave again.
It’s harrowing to think that The Island is based on a set of real events that occurred only a few decades ago. But it is worse to think that, while Robben Island is no more, there are still today a series of similar situations, unjust imprisonments for “crimes” of homosexuality or the colour of someone’s skin. The Island remembers that prisoners are people, with the same love of life and despair at its loss. Instead of generalising this point, Terry chooses to personalise it. He forgoes the overt political message present in Antigone in favour of a more tender tale of affection and companionship. This choice, however, implies that a production cannot give both equal focus, an error that reduces the potential impact of the The Island.
The Island is on until 24th June 2017 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.