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A CurtainUp Review
The Island

by Les Gutman

Off the Island to The Island

What is the most powerful political play ever written?

If you ask Athol Fugard (according to The New York Times), he'll tell you it's Sophocles' Antigone. As Lizzie Loveridge's review below explains, that ancient play figures prominently within the play on which Fugard collaborated with the two actors which is now on display at BAM (in the same production).

Lest we question the continuing vitality of the classics, Fugard goes on to point out that Antigone has served the veiled purpose for which it is employed by the two prisoners here on other occasions: as in France during the Second World War, when it was performed by Anouilh before oblivious Nazi officers in the front rows and their more aware French tenants behind them. Some (those sitting in the front rows perhaps) may view The Island in the historical context of its Apartheid origins. They, too, will miss the forest for the trees.

That the world has no fewer oppressors and oppressed now than it did a third of a century ago when Kani and Ntshona won a Tony for their performance cannot be gainsaid. And so an argument can be made that The Island retains a very practical resonance. But the play never had the specifics of Apartheid in its cross hairs. It has always been a play about the human spirit.

As such, it was, is and likely will remain an astonishing work. As the odd couple of John and Winston (the prisoners bear the first names of the two performers) bear down and bear up, we are witness to a remarkable exploration of the nature and expression of humanity. That these two performers are staggering at their craft renders it all the more enriching.

As in London (and elsewhere where it has been seen), this production relies on only the barest of set elements. Against the backdrop of the Harvey Theater's raw surfaces, as stirringly lit by Mannie Manim, it only gains in strength.
Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn (Ashland/Rockwell)
Telephone: (718) 636-4100
TUES - SAT @7:30, SUN @ 3, additional performance 4/12 @2; $25-55
Opening April 1, 2003, closing April 13, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/3/03 performance

---Original Review Follows

A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Island
by Lizzie Loveridge

In 1973 in London, a play from South Africa burst into the Royal Court Theatre like a bomb. On an empty stage, for fifteen minutes, the only sound heard was that made by the repetitive movements of two men - two young black actors, moving from one side of the stage to the other in a mime of incredible precision: digging, filling wheelbarrows, pushing them, emptying them, digging, filling them again. Great drops of sweat poured from the two men. Each muscle of their bodies, every fibre of their being showed a complete, a crushing reality that they absolutely had to express.  

 The Island
John Kani and Winston Ntshona
(Photo: Ruphin Coudyzer)
So it was three decades ago, in a South Africa ruled by an apartheid regime, that John Kani and Winston Ntshona wrote The Island, a remarkable play about life on the prison of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent twenty two years. It was a difficult play to write because, although Kani and Ntshona had been imprisoned in another prison on unspecified charges for plays subversive to the state, there was little information about what exactly the conditions were on Robben Island. The two black actors collaborated with Athol Fugard, one of South Africa's finest playwrights, and this latest production was originally directed by Fugard himself in Paris and at the Royal National Theatre in London, but in conjunction with the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. It was also presented in Paris at Peter Brook's Bouffes du Nord theatre and the cast acknowledge that Brook gave them some advice. For me, The Island is a play full of charm and humanity and we witness the bonding of these two men incarcerated together.

The opening is as Peter Brook describes it, a mime of grunts and effort, of repetition and of physical exertion. Two men bent over, clad in cream shirts and shorts, barefoot, bare headed and burdened with heavy pails, rhythmically make the inarticulate noises and pants of hard labour in a quarry. It is an indelible theatrical moment. Their faces screwed up against the light, hand in hand, they walk together back to their cell, their limbs aching from the hard labour. "I was sentenced to life, not bloody death," says Ntshona.

The plot is simple. We follow the men through the working day and their time in the privacy of their cell. The men act out their fantasy life, a pretend phone call home; they take it in turns to describe a movie or a book to each other. John Kani is planning to put on a two man version of Antigone as a part of a prisoners' concert and has to persuade Winston to play the part of Antigone. John hears that his appeal has been successful and that he is to be released which poignantly divides the pair and causes Winston's to rail against his lot. They describe how their imprisonment began, being taken in the night, without charge, without knowing where they were going. They tell us about the big issues alongside those smaller indignities, that no-one allowed them to stop for a pee so that they all wet their pants. Finally, they act their Antigone, a marvellous simplification of the Greek tragedy, reduced to the conflict between the interests of the state and those of the individual and a biting, satirical indictment of the South African apartheid regime.

The set is simplicity itself, a few bed rolls, a pail, a sleeping platform. The blankets are slung over frames for Antigone. The whole is lit with high contrast so that we can clearly see the expressions on the men's faces.

Of course Kani and Ntshona are no longer young men but their acting is seasoned and richly mature. They have grown old with these parts and seen so much change in South Africa. The camaraderie between the two men is pivotal, the message is that you cannot imprison the spirit of men like them. These are great performances and tragic as it sounds, there is plenty to smile at. We are so close to them, we share their most intimate moments -- like the pretend phone call, where Winston tries to grab the imaginary phone from John and they ask questions like, "Why isn't my wife writing to me?". The play within a play is a triumph. Kani is a forceful Creon, in improvised head-dress and chain of office, who thinks the measure of a ruler is whether his people are experiencing "happiness and fatness". Winston's Antigone in straw wig and blanket dress makes an incongruous Greek heroine but speaks up for the individual. This is a play to remind us of those incarcerated, especially those who are political prisoners.

The Island
Written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona

With: John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Set and Costumes designed by The Company
Lighting Design: Mannie Manim
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
The Royal National Theatre/ Market Theatre Johannesburg Production
Box Office: 020 7369 1762
Booking to 13th April 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd January 2002 performance at The Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1

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