‘Another bloody load of eternity.’ For John and Winston, cellmates at Robben Island, each day brings more of the same. Imprisoned for standing up against South Africa’s apartheid regime, they’re forced to shovel sand all day. It’s a Tartarean task, unending and futile. Each barrowload they dig, they dump on the other’s heap. The two men – comrades, friends, so closely bound they could be Siamese twins – constantly glower at one another.
By night, they rehearse a version of ‘Antigone’ in their cell. It’s a thinly veiled protest: a play about a woman who knows manmade laws to be corrupt, who refuses to recognise the state’s authority.
Athol Fugard’s two-hander crams five acts worth of inaction into a compact 80 minutes. Twenty years after apartheid’s end, it has lost it’s direct urgency, but its purity of purpose remains. John and Winston’s situation still exists, not in South Africa, perhaps, but elsewhere.
‘The Island’ captures the grim realities of prison life – the incessant aches of manual labour, the hardness of stone floors, the luxury of a spongebath – but also its poetic and philosophical associations. You see friendship, imagination and hope – basic tenets of human existence – willed into survival in the bleakest of circumstances.
It’s time that threatens to come between them. Winston’s appeal has just succeeded, leaving him three months to serve – less, probably. His impending freedom throws John’s life sentence into relief; a reminder that time – and the world beyond their walls – trots on without them.
JMK Award-winning director Alex Brown brings dignity and empathy to his revival, with two superb performances – bruised raw but deeply compassionate – from Jimmy Akingbola and Daniel Poyser. Even so it lacks the spark – be it of fury or invention – to match the play’s transcendence. The final performance of ‘Antigone’ should be an almighty pent-up roar, but poor spatial control lets it deflate.
By Matt Trueman