The Island presented by Market Theatre of Johannesburg
At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Wednesday, January 31.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Written in 1970s South Africa in the midst of apartheid, Athol Fugard’s The Island is a play about righteous defiance and is itself an act of defiance.
The play takes place in South Africa’s Robben Island prison, home to political prisoners during apartheid, and the place where Nelson Mandela served the majority of his 27-year incarceration. Two young, black prisoners, John and Winston, are planning a production of Sophocles’ Antigone, in which Antigone is sentenced to death for her disobedience to the state in burying her younger brother, deemed to be a traitor. Like most plays-within-plays, this one lends itself easily to metaphor; Antigone’s unapologetic admission of her action and her appeal to divine law rather than civil edict has obvious parallels to the prisoners’ situation. Though we never learn the exact reason for their imprisonment, the injustice they face is clear — hard labor, social humiliation, and psychological torment are all part of their daily life.
As played by Thami Mngqolo, John is a charismatic leader whose belief in the power of theater and buoyant attitude are by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking. His cellmate Winston, played by Mpho Osei-Tutu, begins as a clown-like, comic dunce, resistant to dressing in drag and unable or unwilling to memorize the ancient play’s simple plotline. Yet when he finally stands before the imaginary prison guards and inmates to deliver his lines, wearing a mop head as a wig and tin cups as breasts, he is transformed from fool to freedom fighter.
Winston reacts strongly to the news of John’s impending release — an initial ecstasy devolves into cruel, bitter taunting and, finally, admissions of jealousy and despair. While Mngqolo’s John maintained an insistently upbeat optimism, Osei-Tutu’s Winston seemed to emerge from a kind of psychological slumber, as if the process of staging the Greek drama drew forth his latent indignation, his fear, and his fervor. Perhaps the most arresting moment in the play came when John used two tin cups to create an imaginary telephone receiver so he could “call home.” The scene was a miniature tragicomedy, highlighting both men’s desperate longing for their community, and the absolute necessity of fantasy as a survival instinct. Mandela himself is said to have staged Antigone during his captivity; he, like Fugard and the Market Theatre, believed in the power of art to save humanity.