The two coffee mugs in Athol Fugard’s “The Island” serve every purpose except drinking. The mugs help wash wounds, bind together to form a make-believe telephone to talk to long-lost relatives and shelter breasts in a performance.
The Market Theatre of Johannesburg saw no need for many props other than the mugs last Wednesday night at Campbell Hall. Facial expressions, intense emotions and committed acting were enough to tell the tale of two inmates on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, where they are being held for standing up for their rights. The cellmates, John (Thami Mngqolo) and Winston (Mpho Osei-Tutu), prove that human resilience can withstand a brutal authority whose very purpose is to break down that spirit.
The piece is a tragedy about honor, belief and friendship played out on two levels: Fugard’s commentary on apartheid in South Africa, accentuated by Malcolm Purkey’s brilliant directing, and the inmates’ performance of Sophocles’ Antigone. Theater and fantasy provide the cellmates with an escape from the daily injustice and grueling physical labor that they endure in the prison. By becoming powerful figures in Antigone, the men defy the law to honor their convictions, a haunting parallel to their actual lives.
Weaving humorous conversations with heart-wrenching arguments, John and Winston bicker over who dresses as Antigone, reminisce about life with their wives and children and seek refuge in each other’s company. When John finds out his sentence is reduced, Winston offers him a whimsical account of his final three months, exclaiming that now John has something to count down to on his fingers. But amid John’s joy, we see the chilling loss of another human’s identity to the repetitive existence of prison life, as Winston fears he has nothing to look forward to.
Originally performed in 1976, the controversial play worked to change international attitudes about apartheid in the 1970s, delivering a powerful political message through the eyes of two participants. By incorporating a touching human element, “The Island” offers a study of the horrible conditions, but also the extraordinary pride of those who sought truth and justice.