Words by Manjeevan Kaur
Athol Fugard’s The Island captures a bold image of apartheid in South Africa. The intricate relationship between John (Joe Shire) and Winston (Wela Mbusi) reinforces the perseverance of the human spirit in an impossible situation. Two political prisoners and vocal citizens for change find their personal freedom taken away. The result is profound strength and unity in the face of intense beatings from guards and immense physical labour. John and Winston aspire to defy their oppression. The creative staging and engagement with the audience from the start of the performance offers further intimacy and reveals a heightened spectrum of emotion.
The unlikely duo devises a performance of Antigone, they create makeshift costumes, rehearse lines and deliver a glimpse of hope for their fellow inmates. The use of Greek mythology, Antigone is inventive and depicts a connection between small acts of defiance symbolising a larger vision. Antigone translates into “in place of one’s parents” or “worthy of one’s parents”, highlighting a strong thread of self-identity. John and Winston grow closer as friends which physically and mentally uplift each other. Throughout the performance their constant desire for change in South Africa is inescapable, and despite moments of internal conflict they remain firmly unified.
This riveting award-winning drama centres on stories from Robben Island, a prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Chapter Arts Centre is running the performance as a celebration of Black History Month, and the Arts Council Wales supports the production. The imaginative use of minimal props and the core focus on two prisoners is highly emotive. John and Winston reflect on their families, loved ones, and children, during the sleepless nights. After the gruelling days in the quarry or on the endless beach, they both muster the energy to practise their performance of Antigone. The empowering integration of music and the Afrikaans language is refreshing and adds a greater depth to the relationship between John and Winston.
The performance offers a crucial insight into South African politics and the expropriation of land. This social commentary of lived experience delves into the aftermath of the 1950s government action, which established racially segregated areas and displaced people from their neighbourhoods. The message highlights unyielding hope and reflects a layer of accountability to this politically charged performance.