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Apartheid drama is spellbinding and intense

Edward Dede, left, as Winston and Mark Springer as John in The Island. Photo Joel Fildes
Edward Dede, left, as Winston and Mark Springer as John in The Island. Photo Joel Fildes

Georgina Fuller reviews The Island at The Theatre, Chipping Norton, which runs until 20 May

In 1970, a group of inmates, including the legendary Nelson Mandela, staged a Christmas production of Sophocles’ Antigone in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison. Mandela played the part of Creon, the king who sentences Antigone to death for flouting his orders by giving her brother, Polynices, a dignified burial after Creon had declared him an enemy of the state.

Almost 40 years later, on a small stage in a charming little theatre in the affluent Cotswolds, the play is re-enacted to a very different audience as part of The Island, a production by Athol Fugard, an internationally acclaimed South African playwright.

The play was first performed in secret before an integrated audience at The Space in Cape Town in 1973 with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who had both been prisoners on Robben Island.

Fast forward to today. Mark Springer and Edward Dede are spellbinding as the two central characters, John and Winston, and manage to convey the bleakness and turmoil on The Island with minimal props, stark lighting and very little else.

Neither of them speak for the first few minutes as we watch them work up a sweat in the quarry and see the physical exertion they had to endure every day on Robben Island as part of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

They soon evolve into people rather than prisoners and we see the intense, brotherly relationship between the two unravel. John is busy preparing for the Antigone production but Winston, due to play the protagonist Antigone, is ambivalent and refuses to take it seriously.

At first I wasn’t quite sure about the significance of the famous Greek tragedy, the play within the play, despite having studied it at university many years ago. Then I realised that Antigone did, however, have a striking resonance within the context of apartheid.

As Nelson Mandela later reflected. “It was Antigone who symbolised our struggle. She was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.”

In the same way that Mandela and the other prisoners had been made criminals for speaking up for what they believed in, Antigone was exiled for honouring humanity and her brother, against the wishes of the king.

The Island, directed by John Terry, who grew up in South Oxfordshire, is an intense and thought provoking play which made me think about freedom and how terrifying oppression is.

Around half way through the play John hears that he will be released within three months. Winston imagines him tasting freedom, putting on his old clothes, reclaiming him belongings, seeing his wife and children and savouring the sweet tang of beer on his tongue. It is almost unbearable for him, trapped in a cell and breaking his back every day in the quarry, to imagine all those things we take for granted every day.

Three former Robben Island prisoners have since gone on to become South African Presidents.

The Island, from 10-20 May, Chipping Norton theatre. Book tickets at www.chippingnortontheatre.com

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