Bringing together true stories from inmates of Robben Island, the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela from 1962-1982, Alex Brown directs the poignantly simple The Island. Two inmates, Winston and John (Jimmy Akingbola and Daniel Poyser respectively), reminisce about life outside, the tortuous tasks they’re given for the amusements of the guards, and the hope of life beyond the island.
The Clare studio space at the Young Vic is a wonderfully intimate auditorium – its plain wooden walls, rather than being a bizarre black box, is a perfect representation of the bare, isolated nature of the Robben Island cells. Designed by Holly Pigott, the stage space with audiences on two sides features a large concrete block surrounded by dunes of sand and detritus – upon entering the studio, Akingbola and Poyser are in the middle of a menial labour task, shovelling sand from either end of the block into wheelbarrows, dumping the load on the opposing end, then returning to their starting point. This repetitive, monotonous activity lasts for more than twenty minutes as we enter, get seated, and settle. What I found most bizarre was the levels of sympathy I began to feel not just for the characters, but for the actors themselves, sweating under the heat of the stage lights and the physical demands of the movement. Those feelings of pity for the prisoners seemed to stay with me throughout the piece – in itself that seems unremarkable, but when one remembers that the characters are two men serving 10 years or life in prison for undisclosed crimes, it is testament to Brown’s humanising direction.
Both Akingbola and Poyser worked hard throughout the piece, not just because of the physical demands of some of the scenes, but also at 1 hour 20 running time with no other characters or breaks, they mimic the never-ending life within a cellblock. Akingbola was the lifer, a man weary of routine inside but losing sight of everything he once had; Poyser is the cellmate John, sentenced to ten years and forever clinging to his freedom. Interspersed throughout the story is the anticipation of an upcoming prisoner’s concert, in which Winston and John are to perform the Trial of Antigone. Lightening the otherwise oppressive (and rightly so) mood, are the exasperating attempts to teach Winston the plot, and his apprehension at playing the female lead, complete with tea-cup bra and rope headdress. Without these moments of humour, there would be the threat of an unbearable situation of hopelessness; with, the day-to-day life of the prisoners appears more realistic and makes them seem familiar and likeable. In order to highlight or at least inform of the nature of such a prison, it’s important that the audience can connect to the storyline, and devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona this is wholly achieved.
The Island is more than a short piece about two men in a cellblock. It is an insight into the way a lack of variety can start to shut down a person’s individualism, and the strength that holding onto hobbies and passions can give to someone mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s unsurprising that so far this play has been sold out at the Young Vic, and won the JMK Award 2013; 40 years on from its first staging in Cape Town in 1973, it continues to draw in audiences. If you get a chance, this is a significant piece of theatre and history.