April 17, 2000: Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona, The Island

National Theatre, Lyttleton

A two-person play — John and Winston, imprisoned for long terms on Robben Island, South Africa. The play conceived jointly, under strict secrecy, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona. Ninety minutes, no intermission. A powerful, powerfully active play, with an aura of “they lived to tell the tale.” The sense of immediacy great, and established at the outset by pantomimed heavy labor, filling wheelbarrows with stones and moving them to a pile. Remarkable how little real action there is. John and Winston are preparing for a prisoners’ performance of Antigone, which occurs at the end. Before it happens, John is told his appeal has been successful and his sentence reduced: he has only three more months to serve. The prospect of imminent freedom alters the relationship between the two, but ultimately not for the worse; the deep bond they have established becomes even deeper.

The general aura of the play is one of oppressiveness; we see how human beings can survive under the worst of circumstances. Their lives have been entangled by imprisonment and they cannot safely protest. And so the performance of Antigone, whose central character is the archetypal resistor of tyrannical authority in the service of a higher ideal, is their form of protestation. It seems to cause no retaliation; as in the case of Anouilh’s Antigone, performed during wartime for Nazi officers who saw in it no analogy to their present circumstances, this play too is “safe.”

In principle, plays are safe. Seldom do they motivate an audience to rise up, go out, and reform an unjust society. So virtual protest is safe. Especially after the fact. Probably no one in the National Theatre audience associated themselves with the virtual captors seated in the front row of the stalls, pointed at repeatedly prior to the performance of Antigone by John Kani in his introductory remarks. Strictly speaking, that pointing indicts us all as captors, as oppressors; but we were having none of that. Our sympathies were wholehearted, and for the oppressed. Given other circumstances (ours), the writing and performance of The Island are no longer acts of great courage, but still are acts of great actorly skill. The performances are stunningly good, beautifully timed, deep and intense without ever going out of control. Tone is masterfully controlled. The audience was held “riveted to their seats” for the entire ninety minutes. I looked around at one point and sensed the total concentration of hundreds of people. We appreciated an analogy of another kind, one between the fictional bond between John and Winston as prisoners and the actorly bond between them as performers. Both of them were deeply affirmative, of both life and art.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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