Drama Memory Against Forgetting

Memory Against Forgetting

The Island, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is a play that belongs to a different age of South African theatre. This particular revival – directed by Peter Mitchell – is being staged in a Masonic Hall where the audience perches on crimson backless bleachers seemingly designed to inflict a hundred different agonies.

This discomfort should not distract from what is a wonderfully captivating production. Mpilo Nzimande and TQ Zondi are excellent in their roles as John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island, whose friendship is tested by the torsions of the state’s power. The two are stepping into shoes first inhabited by Kani and Ntshona, but the new actors bring their own shading and gravity to the roles they inhabit. Their timing is perfectly synchronized, and they draw humour out of their cheerless situation, though the humour is a canvas stretched taut over the void of the characters’ imprisonment.

Fugard tends to advance themes built around the idea of ordinary people, disadvantaged by an unjust society, trying to take back their humanity through ordinary activities. These activities broadcast the symbolism of the larger ideological battles they represent. Then something befalls the character(s), forcing them to respond to circumstances against which they are hopelessly outmatched.

The Island is a variation on this theme, as the two prisoners attempt to fill the emptiness of their situation – John willingly, Winston less so – with the daunting challenge of presenting scenes from Sophocles’ Antigone at the upcoming prison concert. The irrepressible John installs Winston as Antigone, and the play-within-a-play forms a useful illustration of the ideas underpinning The Island. It’s in this weighty Greek play that we see the reverberations of Fugard’s main concerns: power, the legitimacy with which it is wielded, and the importance of remaining true to one’s values, even against the state.

To watch The Island is to be in the presence of a play where ostensibly universal human concerns are given grounding in South African history. There are elements of the personal (Fugard’s fondness for New Brighton as a setting shines through) which intermingle dutifully with the political (references to Winston being a political prisoner) to form the weave of a play that while predictable, is no less enjoyable.

Throughout, we see John and Winston trying to maintain some sense of their identities in a world where reality is all too real. Abused during the day by the unseen Hodoshe – a prison guard and agent of the oppressive state – the two prisoners distract themselves from their suffocating incarceration by focusing on the play they’re putting on. Throughout, they try to negotiate the fragile balance between remembering what they must hold onto, and forgetting that which is too painful to bear.

The inner world the characters build for themselves is warped when John receives some life-changing news. The news is a Trojan horse which brings strife and hurt even as it promises freedom. It’s a change that throws the relationship between the two men into disarray. The easy clowning of the previous scenes gives way to jagged unease, as the men attempt to salvage their common brotherhood.

To watch The Island today is to be thrown into another world, into a time capsule of a place in which the might of the state seemed to define the contours of the human condition. It also suggests that the struggle against forgetting, in a world driven by injustice and oppression, is what must ultimately triumph.

Wamuwi Mbao 
Cue specialist writer

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