Tag Archives: Athol Fugard

Review: The Island at Oasis Cardiff by Gareth Ford-Elliott

The performance of The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona from Fio at Oasis Cardiff, a community centre for refugees and asylum seekers, was a beautiful way for anyone to get introduced to Fio.

It wasn’t a classic “theatre night”, but more a community evening that had a play at the end of it. There was food served originating from various different countries, the opportunity to have your photo taken and talk with other audience members and refugees from all over the world.

All this before Oasis World Choir, a choir of refugees, took to the stage to perform, inviting the audience to sing along. They performed a mix of pop songs and songs written by themselves. It was a real mix of cultures brought together by music and truly was a beautiful thing to witness. The general themes of the songs were about hope and unity.

As someone who grew up in a close-knit, music based community in West Ireland, it took me right back to that community feeling. But this was totally different, a group of people from all over the world, from various backgrounds.

Some of the music was brilliant. Some of it was a bunch of people having a sing-song, the choir and the audience which was fun. But there were some really beautiful individual performances from various members of the choir.

The Island from Fio

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The Island follows two black prisoners, John and Winston, who rehearse and perform a theatrical version of the Greek myth of Antigone during their time on Robben Island in Apartheid South Africa. Based on a true story, the two prisoners use this play as a way to speak about the current state of affairs of their country. It is a story of brotherhood, jealousy, oppression and protest with an important message of equality at its heart.

The play, originally performed in 1973, has its issues. There is a lot of character building, but a lack of character motivation at times. Whilst there are moments of real importance, the energy of the play stagnates too often. The restrictions of censorship in Apartheid South Africa when this play was written is a reasons for this. Only touching on certain issues that couldn’t be explicitly spoken about in detail. Whereas for a modern audience, in full knowledge of the realities of apartheid, it maybe doesn’t hold the power it did in 1973.

That aside, it tells an important story of struggle against the state. A story that is as relevant around the world today as it was in 1973. You could tell similar stories about the prisons in the USA, Brazil, North Korea, Thailand and even in post-Mandela South Africa. And despite the lack of detail and skirting around the harshest of realities, when this production does suck you in, it is hard not to feel it.

Because of the possibility of telling this story anywhere in the current world, you have to question Fio’s choice to cover this time period. Why this piece? Why now? What is it saying that is new? The answer to that last question is, nothing. We are not getting anything new. If anything, this is a watered-down version of what happened.

However, it is important to learn from history. And Fio were not making this piece of theatre to say anything new. They were making it to speak about the past of South Africa and how we, as the UK, move forward with commonwealth nations considering the past we share. Fio are clear to state the UK’s complicity in South Africa’s apartheid period.

I must mention that it does feel wrong to criticise a script written in a state of censorship. If you’re familiar with Iranian film, an industry full of censorship, you will know how much allegory is relied on to criticise the state and how often details are left to interpretation. The Apple (1998), written and directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, takes the real life story of two young women locked up by their father, and combines that with the symbolism of an apple, a symbol of opportunity, temptation and “the fall of man”, to speak about sexism in the country.

Is it the pinnacle of filmmaking? No. But you don’t get screened at Cannes for nothing. And The Island didn’t win Tony Awards for its technical playwrighting. But more for what it meant at that time.

Less about Fio’s choice to stage it though, Abdul Shayek’s direction fluctuates as the play progresses. The parts that stand out in the script are expressed well in this production. Most of the play is handled with care and directed to good effect. But there are areas that stagnate, times where the energy drops and moments that seem to lack importance.

The design was the strongest aspect of this production. The set was simple, yet effective. Four metal poles holding up a caged ceiling. This set was utilised well by the actors and combined with sound and lighting design, works well together, particularly in dream-like sequences, to produce emotive design. In a space like the Oasis, effectively a sports hall, this is not an easy feat and they deserve credit.

Performances from Joe Shire and Wela Mbusi are both strong. Portraying a brotherly relationship that shows real love, yet also jealousy. The moments of intimacy are beautiful, however some moments of conflict early in the play seem forced. The movement from the performers at times is really strong, which movement director Andile Sotiya deserves credit for.

The Island from Fio split my opinion a great deal and I still can’t decide, in my opinion, whether Fio made the right choice in staging it. Aspects were brilliant, but other parts fell flat. On one hand telling stories about history is important. But on the other hand, was this the right play to put in front a 2018 audience in Wales? Especially viewing it on this night, sharing a room with refugees, I couldn’t help but want to hear their stories more than one I have heard a thousand times. Stories that affect the present. But then, what is the present if we ignore history?

Overall though, the piece was an enjoyable piece of theatre, both from a general spectators perspective and from a critics perspective. Plenty to talk about afterwards both artistically and politically. Not to mention, the event as a whole was really beautiful and made for a heart-warming evening full of hope.

The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona
Presented by Fio at Oasis Cardiff on November 9th 2018
Director: Abdul Shayek
Winston: Wela Mbusi
John: Joe Shire
Movement Director: Andile Sotiya
Lighting Design: Ryan Joseph Stafford
Sound Design: Dan Lawrence
Design Consultant: Becky Davies
Stage Manager: Jeremy Barnaby
Executive Producer: Shane Nickels
Producer: Nicole May
Assistant Stage Manager: Cait Gerry
Assistant Director: Yuqun Fan
Assistant Producer: Jasmine Okai
Community Engagement Officer: Naz Syed
Audio Description Consultant: Alastair Sil
Caption Consultant & Creator: Ben Tinniswood

Review: Athol Fugard’s “The Island” at Chapter by Roger Barrington

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

When “The Island” was invited to play at the Royal Court Theatre, London  in 1973, such was the incendiary reaction to it’s Cape Town premiere shortly before,that  Fugard’s fellow devisers,  John Kani and Winston Ntshona, also the actors of their namesakes in the play, had to pose as Fugard’s chauffeur and gardener, to allow them out of the country. The fact that Fugard neither had a chauffeur or a gardener was beside the point.

“The island” is one of a group of three plays by Fugard collectively known as “The Statement Plays”.  Together with “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” and “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” both from 1972, the plays were developed in workshops  through Fugard’s company, “The Serpent Players”.

“The Island” is based on Robben Island located off the coast of Cape Town and was the notorious home for political prisoners going back as far as the end of the 17th century. It’s most famous inmate being Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated there for eighteen of his twenty-seven years, up to his release in February 1990.  Mandela and his African National Congress colleagues were greeted with the ominous words upon their arrival, “This is the island. This is where you will die”.

Such was the sensitivity of this place, ironically now a World Heritage Site, that the title of the play had to be changed to “Die Hodoshe Span”, or “Hodoshe’s Work Team.” Hodoshe, (in Xhosan it means a “carrion fly”),  refers to a particularly brutal prison guard who is an unseen ominous presence throughout the play. The reference suggesting the parasitic nature of the South African apartheid regime in power, seems to have flown over the heads of the government.

The play was written in 1973 at a time when Apartheid was in full throttle in South Africa. A shameful policy that shows man’s inhumanity to others due to  a different colour of skin, is at its most repulsive. Yet for almost the duration of Apartheid, from it’s beginnings in 1948 to it’s eventual demise in the early 1990’s, the South African government were rigorously supported by lucrative economic deals with the U.K. This point is made explicitly clear as soon as you enter the auditorium by two monitors on either side of the stage relating this in text. This also mentions Prime Minister May’s little dance when she attended earlier this year to mark the centennial birth of Nelson Mandela – notorious not only for its artistic ineptitude but also to the insensitivity of the  British role in Apartheid, which is not something to dance about!

Athol’s “The island” is  Brechtian in its structure. Where the two protagonists display their  human strengths and weaknesses yet are caught up in a system that is beyond their power to influence or change. The didactic nature of the play also connect to Brecht.

Fio’s production breaks away from the direction imposed by Fugard that calls for mime to represent the Sisyphean nature of the two prisoners’ daily tasks for a period of at least 15 minutes. This production opens with a powerful statement by the two actors emerging from opposite entrances behind the audience. They look you straight in the face and tell you why they burnt their passports. In actuality, in the play, only Winston has burnt his passport, an exceedingly serious crime that resulted in a life sentence, as the passport system was a fundamental instrument for imposing Apartheid. John had received a ten-year sentence for being a member of an illegal political organisation.  The onerous nature of the daily tasks the two prisoners endured is exemplified by the two actors repeatedly rolling the other over their back, and the physicality of doing this probably determined the truncation of the 15 minute set mime.

An important introduction to the play, something that Fugard tended to do at this period of his writing, is the introduction of the classical play, Antigone by Sophocles, which in turn, is  based upon Greek mythology. It is clearly apparent that Creon, King of the Thebes represents Apartheid and Antigone herself personifies human rights. She is in fact, in literature the first conscientious objector. This piece of metatheatre, has Winston comically adjusting his few clothes to represent a skirt and donning two tin drinking vessels to represent breasts. By choosing to re-enact a scene from Antigone to it’s audience, (which one would surmise, at least  comprises of members of the prison staff), itself as a weapon against those who think they are directing the theatre of life in South Africa, John and Winston transform their theatre of acquiescence into a Brechtian theatre of protest.

In the final words of the play, Winston, still dressed as Antigone, takes a turn addressing the audience, “Brothers and Sisters of the Land! I go now on my last  journey. I must leave the light of day forever, for the Island, strange and cold, to be lost  between life and death .., Removing his Antigone costume, Winston then addresses the audience as  himself, “Gods of our Fathers!  My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs” John and Winston upon hearing the shrill whistle that features throughout the play, and which represents authority, resort back to their Sisyphean tasks.

Heady stuff! No wonder the Apartheid government felt compelled to censure this play and constantly arrest actors who played in it.

Both Joe Shire as John and Wela Mbusi as Winston embody the two characters that they are playing with great skill and agility, and deliver Fugard’s beautifully cadential script perfectly. They manage to change their relationship to each other determined by the script after John finds out that his sentence has been commuted to three years, leaving him only  three month to remain incarcerated, and Winston’s realisation that he is going to be even more isolated after his friend’s departure is handled in an understated way that is even the more powerful for it.

An important feature of this play has to be the lighting. It needs to reflect the claustrophobic nature of being incarcerated in a small space and expresses the optimism of a better existence outside of their unnatural environment. Ryan Joseph Stafford manages this by the simple technique of using low light to empathise the prisoners’ isolation and lack of space, and brilliant blinding light when they express their hopes and desires.

Andile Sotiya’s movement direction is almost balletic at times using the sparse set with surrounding steel apparatus to great effect. Abdul Shayek’s assured direction, never lets the pace of the play lag.

“The Island” is an elegant play that explicitly shows the dehumanisation of men purely based upon the colour of their skin. It is as relevant now, in an increasingly divisive society as it was over 40 years ago, when written. I would thoroughly recommend you seeing this important play from one of the leading contemporary playwrights in world theatre.


Roger Barrington

Continue reading Review: Athol Fugard’s “The Island” at Chapter by Roger Barrington