The Island is a wonderful piece of political theatre that moves both the heart and mind. Devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the play is based on true stories collected from prisoners of Robben Island, the prison which held Nelson Mandela.
It tells the story of two cellmates, Winston (Jimmy Akingbola) and John (Daniel Poyser) who work in the quarry during the day, under the ruthless oversight of their prison governor, and spend their nights in their cold, cramped cell rehearsing for the Prison's variety show.
It must have been a daunting challenge to take the injustices of Robben Island and dramatise them in a way which doesn't make the play dry, depressing and impossible to watch. Well, the creatives for this show have succeeded in the face of those incredible odds.
The success is a result of both combining humour with the dark depression of life on Robben Island, and by the superb execution of all those involved.
Winston and John are preparing an excerpt from Antigone for the variety show. The choice of play is obviously shrewd given Antigone's unjust punishment of confronting the tyranny of King Creon. But this also serves as a great opportunity for light relief from their long, dark days. One of Winston and John will have to play the woman, Antigone, and this is the source of much comedy for them as well as us.
Winston & John are the only two characters in this play and they remain on stage throughout the 80 minute running time. There is a great chemistry between the two actors who both put in extraordinary performances as two cellmates bound together. There is jealousy and frustration between them as much as there is brotherhood and compassion. Both actors are utterly convincing and bring a real emotional heart to the production.
Mention must also go to Director Alex Brown who has brought out the best in both the limited space of The Clare theatre at the Young Vic, and from his small cast. The space is well adapted to move with the story as we go from mining quarry, to the prison cell and on to the entertainment show. And the performances are perfectly staged for having the audience on both sides of The Clare.
The Island is one of the best shows I've seen this year. Utterly convincing, thought-provoking and executed at a very high-level by all involved. With The Scottsboro Boys on in the main theatre, the Young Vic may well have two of the best shows in town under one roof.
And just as I said for The Scottsboro Boys, if I could give you all a ticket to see this show, I would. The Island is an incredible achievement which made me smile and broke my heart.
To November 30, 2013
Young Vic Theatre, London