Revisiting a classic
‘ The Island’ explores the ability of the human spirit to triumph in face of adversity and unjust system
REVIEW: THE ISLAND HEXAGON THEATRE, UKZN PIETERMARITZBURG
WRITTEN by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, The Island is a reminder that even in the 21st century we need to fight for freedom of expression and argue against the power of the state over the individual.
I can’t begin to imagine the thoughts these three men must have had when they defied the laws of the time to stage this rebellious stage show in 1973. But stage it they did and, in 1975, their efforts were rewarded with a shared Tony Award for Kani and Ntshona.
This production is directed by Peter Mitchell, and despite the cavernous space of the Hexagon Theatre, remains an intimate work.
Mpilo Nzimande and T. Q. Zondi, last seen in Mitchell’s production of Woza Albert!, play John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island.
The former was imprisoned for belonging to a banned organisation and the latter for burning his pass book in front of the authorities.
Both hail from the Eastern Cape, and their longing for their homes and families resonates sharply in the scene in which John pretends to call mutual friends. Watching Winston’s initial excitement fade into despair is gut wrenching.
The Island opens with the two men busy with the senseless task of digging, and then loading and transporting beach sand by wheelbarrow, a punishment from their warder, the unseen but ever present Hodoshe.
When the whistle blows, they are released from their labours, chained together and forced to jog back to their cell, where they can nurse their aching limbs.
Soon, however, they are at loggerheads over Winston’s attitude to the warder and John’s plan to stage a scene from Sophocles’s Antigone for their fellow prisoners.
Winston isn’t taking the play seriously, won’t learn the story and is, frankly, less than happy that he has to don a wig and use metal cups for breasts to play the principal role in the Greek tragedy.
The tension between the two men increases when John learns that his 10- year sentence is being reduced and that he will be free in three months.
Nzimande portrays a man torn and confused. He wants to look forward to being back with his wife, children and family, but finds his joy tempered by the knowledge that he will be leaving Winston, who is serving a life sentence, behind.
Winston, meanwhile, cannot disguise his hurt, jealousy and anger, telling John: “Your freedom stinks … It’s driving me mad.”
But as the saying goes: what cannot be cured must be endured; and ultimately he agrees to perform the trial of Antigone.
Like them, she has defied the laws of a tyrannical state to bury her brother, Polyneices, and has been sentenced to be interred alive in a cave.
Zondi shines in these final moments as Sophocles’s outcast heroine, pleading for justice, bemoaning Creon’s cruel laws, and eventually changing the word “cave” to “island”. He tells the audience that he is preparing to endure his “living death”. It’s a reminder that under apartheid life imprisonment meant just that for those who defied the system.
The Island is by turns funny, sobering, thought- provoking and leaves you amazed at the ability of the human spirit to triumph in the face of man’s inhumanity to man.
• The Island is at the Hexagon Theatre at the University of KwaZuluNatal Pietermaritzburg campus at 6 pm from today until Saturday, February 21. Tickets are R70 ( R50 for students and seniors) at Computicket. Please note: the play has some strong language. • arts@ witness. co. za
T. Q. Zondi ( left) and Mpilo Nzimande star in The Island at the Hexagon Theatre.