Re­vis­it­ing a clas­sic

‘ The Is­land’ ex­plores the abil­ity of the hu­man spirit to tri­umph in face of ad­ver­sity and un­just sys­tem

The Witness - Wheels - - ARTS - ESTELLE SINKINS


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.

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