By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is about a real island in South Africa, the site of a notorious prison. If you’ve been there you know how stark and oppressive Robben Island is, despite its having now become—merely, happily— a tourist site. Nelson Mandela, among thousands of others, was imprisoned there under the grim laws of apartheid and participated in the events the play recounts. Fugard, long admired as the courageous theatrical spokesman for human rights in his native country, gives us just a glimpse of what it must have felt like to be trapped—physically and psychologically—in South Africa.
Two black men, Winston (U.R.) and John (Frank X) silently—except for the occasional grunt—shovel imaginary sand into imaginary wheelbarrows. This extreme pointlessness continues—director Peter DeLaurier keeps them at it for a good ten or fifteen minutes—until finally their day ends and they return to their cell on Robben Island.
There is to be a “concert” the next day, with various presentations by the prisoners. John has organized “The Trial of Antigone” wherein he will play Creon and Winston will play Antigone. Sophocles’ tragedy is about one person’s defying the state by challenging an immoral law. Sophocles’ play is profoundly complex and ambiguous; Fugard’s version of it is not. Like The Island, his Antigone lacks subtlety, but both the frame play and the play-within-the-play make a powerful point.
The first half of The Island (performed without intermission) belongs to John as the interpreter and instigator of events. Frank X provides a passionate and nuanced character study, and then a terrifying, ingratiating, utterly political Creon. The second half belongs to Winston who narrates much of their backstory right up until they lost their freedom After much reluctance, he plays a winsome and defiant Antigone. U.R. lets us see, at the very moment his character suddenly sees it, the damage done by years in prison.
Lantern reconfigures their small stage into an arena, a square cell, a space (designed by Nick Embree) with the audience seated on four sides. Although conceptually this makes sense, it obscures some of the dialogue (all performed in dialect) since the actors often have their backs to us.
The most interesting scene is another bit of playacting; John pretends he is calling home and carries on a conversation with various people in his life. The most heart-stopping moment comes when he seems to be merely talking about the weather: “Tell her it’s starting to get cold now. But the worst is still coming.” One can barely imagine the courage it took to write this play in 1973 while apartheid was still the cruel law of the land.