Athol Fugard is a self-professed disciple of the theatre of ancient Greece. Ever since his debut as a young actor in Oedipus Rex he has worshiped the works of the founding era of drama. His 1973 piece, The Island, explores epic themes on a much smaller canvas in Alex Brown’s assured and evocative new production. Performed outside of its original apartheid era context, the play’s flaws are more apparent but its power endures.
Daniel Poyser and Jimmy Akingbola play cellmates Winston and John, imprisoned together on Robben Island. As the audience enters, they shovel sand back and forth on a beach, the futility of the act palpable, the long hours of labour broken only by the brief respite of their tiny cell and a shared rag with which to wash.
At turns these men are isolated from one another and yet unified, their relationship roving between that of a parent and child and brothers in arms. Akingbola is particularly poignant in his presentation of Winston’s dread of a life sentence on the island, his fear as painfully fresh as it undoubtedly was on the day he was sentenced.
Both performances are supremely confident and assured even at this early stage in the run, undaunted by the traverse audience arrangement in the intimate studio space at the Young Vic.
A substantial amount of the play is performed in ‘shared light.’ The audience is able to see each other across the room and there is a sense we are all in this together. There’s a universality to the play and its themes. It’s inspirational on one hand but the intimacy of the production serves as a reminder that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Prisoners of conscience like Winston and John are being held in countries around the world at this very moment. And as the actors look out into the eyes of the audience during the final moments of the play we are reminded of this fact.
Nelson Mandela was held on Robben Island for 18 years. As were two other future South African Presidents Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma and The Island is based on real life experiences, later shaped by Fugard and the original performers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.
As well as the Greeks, Fugard also cites Brecht’s Lehrstucke as an inspiration: plays which overtly sought to educate, encourage moral contemplation and galvanise their audience. Not dissimilar perhaps from the purpose of the ancient amphitheatre, Fugard says that his stories contain issues that are ‘too important to be forgotten’. And as long as there are undemocratic leaders, tyrannical regimes and the people that defy them, stories such as this one must be told.
Brown is this year’s recipient of the JMK Prize, an annual award for the development of young directors which gives them the means to present a full production of their work. Past recipients include Orla O’Loughlin, Thea Sharrock and Joe Hill-Gibbins. Brown’s is a confident debut, and though minimal in its design, it is tightly performed and deftly articulated.