Finding freedom in captivity

IN The Island, two political prisoners on Robben Island perform a version of Antigone to their cellmates and their warders. The performance works, within the prison-context, as a lightly-coded metaphor for the South African liberation struggle: Antigone, a stand-in for Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, defying the unjust law of Creon to obey her conscience.

But when the play was initially workshopped and performed by John Kani and Winston Ntshona in collaboration with Athol Fugard in 1973, it worked in another way too: the cell was a symbol for South Africa under apartheid, and the “production” of Antigone by the prisoners a powerful statement about the redemptive and liberatory role that theatre can play in a society subject to intense repression and confinement. The Island, as a meta-play, a play about playing, was to define the credo of engagement that powered protest-theatre for two decades to come.

How strange, then, to see it performed in 1995 — in the post-apartheid years when, rather than representing the claustrophobia of a cell, our stages might well throw themselves open to the wide plains of possibility, free of stricture or censorship. Is this yet further proof of our current crisis of imagination; of the fact that contemporary South African theatre is so dead that its only option is to return, nostalgically, to times past that were paradoxically easier, when theatre had a clear and unambiguous role to play?

If a revival of The Island had failed, there would be no doubt as to the answer to this question. But the brilliance of this production, indeed its glory, is that it works not as nostalgia, nor even just as finger-wagging “lest-we- forget” severity, but as a living experience that explores the relationship of incarceration to freedom and thus of the past to the future. In so doing it places us, as free South Africans, in the context of our recent past in a way that neither allows us to forget what we have just been through nor insists that we wallow in it.

Rather, it shows us our history through the passage of time, the exigencies of struggle, etched on to the features and beaten into the bodies of its two magnificent performers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. When they won their Tony awards for the original Island in 1975, they were, by all accounts, two charged young firebrands; angry bulls in a corral representing for the world the power of black resistance to apartheid. Now, 20 years on, they rattle around the cell as two old and tired men, exhausted, filled with the pathos of age, but still inextinguishable.

Just like the ageing and deteriorating body of Mandela — the eyes that weep from decades at the limestone quarry — they remind us what we had to go through to get to where we are today. They affirm that our democracy is not the “miracle” it is often proclaimed to be, but rather the result of a specific history, built on the hardship of the ordinary and very real people Kani and Ntshona represent.

Kani (“John” in the play) is The Island’s head: cool, cerebral, single-minded and pedantic as only old men can be. Ntshona (“Winston” in the play) is its gut, a heaving sack of physicality sweating anguish to the surface, simultaneously endearing and obstinate as only old men can be. I can scarcely recall a more moving performance than Ntshona’s: why don’t we see more of him on our stage? With his agonised moon face and his broad and earthy gestures, he is a Rabelaisian comic; howling, belching, laughing and bellowing his humanity, but never once allowing his performance to overwhelm either the imaginary cell which he and John occupy or the delicate balance of their partnership and interdependency.

And that is the production’s coup: so completely symbiotic are Kani and Ntshona’s performances that they manage to represent both a duality in consciousness as well as two very different individuals. The terrain is laid out in the opening, pre-verbal sequence, where, for nearly 10 minutes, we watch the two men forced into absolute exhaustion on the island’s sand-dunes by undoing each other’s work. Coupled together quite arbitrarily by the cruellness and capriciousness of the state, they become perpetual reflections, to each other, of both hope and desolation.

Their control is astonishing. Wild ribald humour will crash, in an instant, into wrenching grief. And such generosity: despite the many temptations, neither Kani nor Ntshona steals the show and both allow the fierce poetic lyricism of Fugard — unmistakeable even in his “workshopped” scripts — to shine through.

When Winston becomes Antigone in the final sequence of the play, he transforms from bumbling incoherence into powerful articulacy. His bent body is lifted, through the minimal drag of a wig fashioned from rope and a prison-blanket wrapped as a skirt around his waist, into the upright figure of righteous indignation.

The Island reminds us that performance has liberatory potential, in all senses of the word. It remains a volatile and quite unique fusion of gritty social realism and abstracted existentialism. There is no reason why, in 1995 as in 1973, it should not continue to play its defining role in South African theatre. It sets the standards for technical excellence and performance virtuosity, and proves that social engagement and literariness are not mutually exclusive.

The Island runs at the Market Theatre in Newtown until July

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