Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
27 October 2018
Two men, two blankets, a couple of tin cans, some string and scraps, and a scaffold. Some chalk, too. Nowhere for the actors to hide: they stay on stage, in the spotlight, no dramatic scene changes. Just their bodies and their energy to tell a highly emotive, nuanced story of two political prisoners in apartheid-era South Africa.
Though it isn’t clarified and simply referred to as “the island”, it’s set on Robben Island, the prison infamous for imprisoning a number of highly influential freedom fighters, included Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
The Island is a well-loved play written by Athole Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, performed first at the height of apartheid in South Africa in 1973. Now, forty-five years later in Cardiff, it still retains the power to move and evoke an audience. It was given new life the other night at Chapter Arts Centre. It’s on a tour of Wales until early November and a must-watch.
With such a utilitarian stage, elements like voice and movement are non-negotiable. The two actors, Joe Shire (John) and Wela Mbusi (Winston), are tasked with using their physical strength, their projection and their emotion to transfer powerful messages, which they do very successfully.
The play is not about any one dramatic event – its purpose is not to re-enact a particular clash in history. Rather, it sets out to illustrate the lack of moments, the long-term effect of unjust life imprisonment, the internal struggles that filter through everyday life in a place where the disintegration of character and resolve is their major punishment. Thus, the play moves quite slowly and requires a lot of energy to keep momentum and interest, which the actors succeeded in achieving for the most part.
The play’s plot revolves around the two characters learning the words to the Ancient Greek play, Antigone, to perform for the inmates and guards. Though this is primarily a simple device, it burrows itself deeply into what’s happening in the play, too, and offering commentary on the regime itself. Antigone’s questing of the law in relation to what is just and right, ties seamlessly with the questioning of the legislated structural inequality in South Africa and the laws associated with it.
words Megan Thomas