“A masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers.”
There are plenty of captivating, harrowing setups and settings one can find at a theatre festival as dynamic and forward-thinking as the Fringe, yet perhaps the most compelling by measure for me thus far is the setting of this two-man tour de force, The Island. Though admittedly written in 1973, and staged in secret so the fascistic censorship laws of Apartheid South Africa overlooked its radical content, this play carries haunting and brilliant messages that carry weight and will move audience members even today. Onstage, the play’s performers, Siya Mayola and Luntu Masiza, are delightful leading men, and though the staging is not quite perfect, its quality and impact grows and grows on the viewer, so that by its climax, The Island proves itself a masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers.
Though the script itself, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, does not specifically mention the name Robben Island, this production’s publicity makes very clear that this is a condemnation of the conditions and severity of South Africa’s most notorious prison compound. The script paints a painful picture of prison life with a lengthy opening sequence set in a mimed quarry, where the play’s two characters, John and Winston, lift and shovel useless piles of sand and rock back and forth; this creates a palpable sense of meaningless work and maddening repetition, yet is so drawn out it comes across as perhaps too grating a point. Next, the prisoners return to their cell, and though their performances are genuinely realistic, having been subjected to hours of backbreaking labour, their delivery is so breathless and strained for the first third of the show that it results in a peculiarly incomprehensible stretch of dialogue. As they regain their composure, John and Winston begin to discuss the thematic hook of the play: they have been granted a slot to perform the Greek tragedy Antigone for the other prisoners.
As John, the more optimistic, theatrically-inclined of the two, Siya Mayola is a charming, mellifluous presence. He both teases and uplifts Winston with his words and suggestions, and to Mayola’s credit, and the play’s as well, his character is imbued with the sense of literary intelligence and cultural dexterity early on, without any needless exposition — economic storytelling at its best. As Winston, the more reluctant and grave, yet intermittently boisterous prisoner, Luntu Masiza presents a fascinating subject; he has been imprisoned for life for the sickeningly unworthy crime of simply burning his Apartheid-issued passbook in front of police, and though he has decided to treat his inhumane sentence with brusque humour rather than agony, Masiza incorporates moments of genuine, tragic ruminations on what his fate truly means, which are truly affecting, and brilliantly acted.
Christopher Weare’s direction is clever, and the appropriately bare space in which this production is performed ultimately complements the starkness of the men’s prison cell, though there are some odd choices in terms of sightlines and characters intermittently turning their backs to the audience. Thankfully, the actors’ voices carry so well that these are easy to overlook. The most striking element of the show is its rising intensity and increasingly fascinating twists and turns. The story weaves itself in compelling new directions late on, and in fact one of the central elements of the dynamic between the prisoners — regarding their respective sentences — is only introduced well past the halfway point of the show. When it is brought up, however, it is discussed with devastating clarity and emotion, and credit must go to Masiza for his captivating, brilliantly-measured monologue as he explains his future in comparison to John’s. Towards the end, the prisoners get to perform their Antigone, which proves yet another fascinating turn of the narrative, and Mayola in particular shines in this play-within-a-play. Not to mention, the narrative and political implications of this particular staging within the Robben Island context is a truly inspired comparison, and left me both sickened with its implications and deeply impressed with the craftiness of its ultimate point.
The acting is captivating, the play itself is brilliant, and the message is affecting. There are a few issues towards the beginning that admittedly force the production to take a long time to get to the heart of the matter, but when it does, The Island is deeply resonant and impeccably crafted theatre. An excellent fit for St. Johns’ Just Festival, and a worthy staging by these clever theatremakers.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 August)