Monday, 11 November 2013

Theatre review: The Island

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance before Press Night.

The Island currently being reconstructed in the Young Vic's Clare is Robben Island, better known as the place Nelson Mandela spent his years of captivity. Athol Fugard's play, devised with John Kani & Winston Ntshona, follows a couple of days in the lives of two political prisoners, cellmates who didn't know each other until they offended the Apartheid regime and ended up spending 24 hours a day together. When we meet them they've spent a day moving wheelbarrow loads of sand up and down the beach, a task designed to turn them on each other as each sees his cellmate make his own job an endless one. This particular bit of cruelty is a new one, but typical of their lives there. Once finally back in their cell their exhaustion doesn't stop them working towards a small triumph of their own: There's an inmates' concert coming up and John (Daniel Poyser) is intent on staging a version of Antigone, with Winston (Jimmy Akingbola) in the title role.

A lengthy wordless introduction makes no bones about the hardship of the two men's lives, but once back in their cell we also get a lighter side as the two bicker, reminisce and try to entertain each other, effectively creating the relationship between the pair. John's choice of Antigone as a vehicle carries an unmistakable political message, but equally important to him seems to be his determination that putting on the play will improve Winston's reading skills. A real test of their relationship though comes with the news that John's appeal has been successful, and within 3 months he'll be a free man, leaving Winston behind. The fact that John assumes the news of his release is another trick to break his spirits speaks volumes in itself about their lives there.

The Island is this year's JMK Award-winning production. It's not always easy to get an idea of what kind of director the winner will go on to be, the shortlisted plays not necessarily leaving a lot of room to show the personality behind the scenes. But Alex Brown certainly shows promise in the tight intensity he's brought out in his actors, and also manages a couple of surprises. The Island starts as a bit of a slow burn but it does build up into something quite impressively intimate and powerful.

The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani & Winston Ntshona is booking until the 30th of November at the Young Vic's Clare (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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