When “The Island” first debuted in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1973, its honest but harsh portrayal of life in a political prison led the apartheid South African government to attempt to confiscate the play. But no script existed, because the two actors (John Kani and Winston Ntshona) and the director (Athol Fugard) had memorized every line. Nearly 30 years later, “The Island” makes its D.C. debut at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
“The Island” is set on Robben Island, the small island off the coast of Cape Town that housed political prisoners including Nelson Mandela during apartheid. The two characters, John (Kani) and Winston (Ntshona), share a cell in the prison. The play opens with the duo working in the quarry on the beach. For 10 minutes the two actors pantomime shoveling and carrying heavy objects around the stage, grunting and sweating from their arduous work.
The scene then shifts to their prison cell, where John eagerly tries to teach Winston the plot of “Antigone.” They have been commissioned to perform the Greek tragedy at a prison concert. John and Winston pass time reflecting on their families and homes and trying to come to terms with their life in the prison. For them, life is a tragic ritual of work and sleep.
John and Winston live in their cell like two bodies with one heart. Just as they are chained together in the quarry, they are chained in their cell by a stronger bond, their will to remain hopeful through isolation, humiliation and despondency.
Tension transgresses their relationship when John learns that his sentence has been reduced and he will be freed in three months. While John expresses elation and disbelief, Winston, who serves a life sentence, becomes dejected. The play ends with John and Winston’s performance of “Antigone,” a fitting play that is updated in their rendition to become an apartheid struggle between races.
Kani and Ntshona are captivating and perform their characters and friendship with palpable intensity. Kani plays John with an amalgam of hope and despair. During a soliloquy in which he recalls his wife and children, a single spotlight illuminates Kani’s face and his usually boisterous voice cracks with emotion. In contrast, Ntshona’s Winston is stoic and hardened. Although he can join in John’s hopeful banter, Winston’s tone and gesticulations are underlined by a profound despair and demise.
Because the two-hour play focuses entirely on the two men and their relationship in the cell, the development and climax of the relationship is crucial to keeping the audience’s focus and involvement. The actors meet that challenge with skill. Their performance of a modern “Antigone” is chilling and painfully ironic.
While “The Island” is slow to gain momentum, the end result is an intense, strong depiction of life, hope, injustice and the entrails of apartheid – issues that are as important to us today as they were when the play was first performed in 1973.