Re-staging ’The Island’ after 30 years, the end of apartheid and two Tonys

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In 1974, when "The Island" opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London, South Africa was in the grip of a repressive policy of apartheid. This season, as "The Island" opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the world is in the throes of terrorism and war.

It seems that Athol Fugard’s play about responsibility, sacrifice, freedom and oppression comes around just when we need it most.

"The Island" is a collaborative creation of Fugard, a white, South African playwright, and two black, South African actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Although Fugard had written many political plays prior to "The Island," this was the first such collaboration in his nation’s history.

The play was first performed in South Africa in secret, for an invited audience. After its London run, "The Island" was performed on Broadway along with "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," also by Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, where it earned Kani and Ntshona a joint Tony Award for best actor.

In 1999, director Peter Brook worked with Kani and Ntshona on restaging "The Island" at Brook’s Paris Theater, Les Bouffes du Nord, and it is presented at BAM by the Royal National Theatre and Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, where Kani is artistic director.

"The Island" is a two-man, one-act play in which Kani and Ntshona play prisoners John and Winston, who are planning to stage Sophocles’ "The Trial of Antigone" for the administrators and inmates of the Robben Island prison.

John is the director. He is eager and optimistic. He bullies and cajoles the cynical, more passive Winston until he agrees to don a makeshift wig and falsies to play the role of the brave Antigone, who defies her dictatorial uncle, Creon, King of Thebes, so she may perform her duty and bury her disgraced brother.

The parallels are obvious. Antigone’s burial of her brother, and Winston and John’s performance of such a subversive play are both acts of extreme courage in the face of a repressive state.

"Remember there are responsibilities to others," John tells his friend.

Despite its weighty theme, "The Island" can be painfully funny. John and Winston somehow manage to laugh at each other and their plight.

When John first sees Winston in his Antigone getup, he bursts out laughing, then defends himself by explaining that he was only laughing to "prepare [Winston] for stage fright."

But Fugard, Kani and Ntshona always bring the audience back to the agonizing reality of the prisoners - when the prisoners imagine talking to an old friend and asking him to tell their families to write, when they remember old times and how they got to the prison, and when John, who has been given an unexpected reprieve, imagines how he will enjoy life outside prison.

"Time moves very slowly when you’ve got something to wait for," he says.

"The Island" begins with a 15-minute mime of the two prisoners working in the quarry - digging, filling wheelbarrows, pulling and emptying the wheelbarrows, and then filling them up again.

The scene is no doubt intended to convey the brutalizing, dehumanizing labor of the prisoners, in order to make the audience feel it so viscerally they will be pushed almost to the breaking point. But this reviewer found the repetitive action more soporific than searing. In fact, it took several minutes to wake up sufficiently to pay attention to the rest of the performance.

But once this hurdle was overcome, Kani and Ntshona made magic. Their personal energy, as well as their synergy, was marvelous. Those of us who were not fortunate enough to see "The Island" on Broadway 30 years ago can only imagine the effect of two young, vigorous men playing the roles. But as aging men of 60, with sagging chests and wrinkled faces, their courage is riveting and their charm is magnetic.

Kani and Ntshona perform on an almost empty stage. A raised, square platform represents the island. A few blankets become their beds and then stage curtains. They wear khaki shirts and shorts.

This minimal staging adds enormously to the production by focusing attention on the two men and their relationship. There are no distractions - either for the actors or the audience - and no release from prison or from pain.

"The Island," like all good theater, takes a specific situation and makes it universal. At a time when Americans are still reeling from Sept 11, 2001, and when the fear of terrorism has led to the passing of the Patriot Act and the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, "The Island" asks questions we need to be asking ourselves: How precious is our freedom? How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security? And how much are we willing to sacrifice for our freedom?

Kani and Ntshona, who have both spent time in the Robben Island prison, certainly are men we need to hear - and to heed.

The Royal National Theatre and the Market Theatre’s production of "The Island" continues April 8-11 at 7:30 pm, April 12 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and April 13 at 3 pm at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $25, $40 and $55. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

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