Revivals of modern classics can be tricky affairs; sometimes, as with the 20th anniversary production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, they pay homage to the play's original impact and influence more than affirming its continuing relevance and quality. The Island, now playing at The Old Vic in what is announced as its final London season, is potentially a more awkward case in point: this portrait of the brutal prison régime on Robben Island was itself part of the political, social and cultural struggle against apartheid when first staged at the Royal Court in 1973; now that South Africa is free, to what extent might a revival constitute a grim celebration of that struggle, or even a perverse kind of nostalgia?
The answer, thankfully, is only a little. Actors and (with Athol Fugard) co-devisers John Kani and Winston Ntshona have now been involved with the play for longer than Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben. They have thickened out with age, so that they make somewhat implausible victims of a rigorous routine of hard labour in a quarry or simply shifting sand dunes on a beach. What was once a fifteen-minute sequence at the beginning of the play in which the men exhaustingly mime filling and shifting load after wheelbarrow load of sand before being doubled back to their cells in a grotesque kind of three-legged race, buzzed around all the while with flies, now lasts half as long and is a cause more for theatrical admiration at the players' skills and dedication than a shocking evocation of actual brutality.
However, the human interaction at the heart of the drama continues to strike a deep chord. The dynamic between the two prisoners is a conventional one: John the thoughtful, dominant one and Winston the blunter, more direct man who ultimately reveals convictions and worries just as deep, a kind of penal Didi and Gogo. It is the ways in which these two come together that speak timelessly of human collective will and indomitability. The nightly routine of imaginative escape: last night Winston narrated a western movie, tonight John "phones home" to their friends with a tin mug as a receiver. The threat posed by news of John's sentence reduction on appeal: he refuses to believe it, as it may simply be a lie to break him, while Winston finds unbearable the "stink of freedom" he already imagines coming off his friend and comrade, reminding him of his own time left on the island. At its simplest, the raw physical reality of John using his own urine to disinfect a wound inflicted to Winston's eye by a warder.
And at its most complex and universal, the men's performance of Antigone in a prison concert, in which John as Creon becomes the personification of the self-regarding state and Winston transcends his embarrassment at playing the bewigged, false-breasted heroine to become a simple yet eloquent embodiment of resistance to such a régime. The South Africa of The Island, and the young Kani and Ntshona who so punishingly portrayed its cruelties, may now be in the past, but an enduring testimony to the power of justly committed humanity remains.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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