This version of The Island is a fine production of a modern classic and should be required viewing for students of history and British colonialism, or any kind of state-sanctioned oppression. 

Set when it was first created in South Africa in 1973, at the height of the apartheid regime, the play takes place in a prison on an unnamed island, but long assumed to be Robben Island where the white South African government imprisoned Nelson Mandela and other senior members of the African National Congress.

At the start we see two men on opposite sides of the stage shovelling something into wheelbarrows, and then pushing their heavy wheel barrows across the stage and tipping the contents into the hole just dug by the other man. Done in mime it is nevertheless exhausting to watch, and expresses perfectly the utter pointlessness of their lives.

The Island at The Lowry theatre. Credit: Victoria Wai

The Island at The Lowry. Credit: Victoria Wai.

Then we meet them in the cell they share. They talk about the things you would expect two men who have lived together for three years in the same cell would talk about, and they rehearse a play. That is to say, they rehearse a scene from the Ancient Greek tragedy Antigone for presentation at a concert to be given by the inmates.

Antigone’s brother Polynices rebelled against the state and has been killed in battle. King Creon has forbidden mourning for him, on pain of death. But Antigone buries him. She is caught and tried. It is the scene in which she pleads her case that our two inmates are rehearsing, and which we finally see them enact. At the end, the actor playing Antigone removes his wig and says ‘”Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honour belongs.” It is a plea for divine rather than political justice, and the parallels with the black prisoners of a white regime are obvious.

The politics are clear, which is why it is a miracle that the play exists at all. Our two prisoners are called John and Winston, after the two actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who originally created the play in workshops with writer Athol Fugard at The Space in Cape Town. It was clearly going to provoke the regime, and would be censored if they realised what it was about, so the original production was renamed Die Hodoshe SpanHodoshe’s Shift – after the unseen guard who makes their lives miserable and whose name is the Xhosa word for carrion fly.

It wasn’t until the play transferred to London’s Royal Court in 1974 that it became The Island. The production then went to Broadway, where Kani and Ntshona won Tony Awards. It was a powerful piece of propaganda exposing the evils of apartheid, and its international success was not lost on the South African government. On his return in 1975, Kani was ambushed by the police, beaten, and left for dead. He lost an eye as a result.

Production shots from The Island, The Lowry. Credit: Victoria Wai

The Island, The Lowry. Credit: Victoria Wai.

The actors here are Ewen Cummins as John and Daniel Poyser as Winston. They are both excellent. The director Jake Murray, whose company Elysium produced the show, clearly understands the relationship between the two men and has conjured utterly believable performances from his actors. Designers Caitlin Mills and Lee Ward have created a simple set that does everything it needs to and no more.

It is a fine production on the 50th anniversary of its first performance. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 50 years for plays exposing the appalling regimes oppressing other indigenous peoples around the world today.

By Chris Wallis

Main image credit: Victoria Wai 





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