In the End, They Will Listen

The Island presented by Market Theatre of Johannesburg

At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Wednesday, January

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

The_Island.jpgWritten 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.


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