No man is an island

South African playwright Athol Fugard’s 1974 work ‘The Island’ contains messages that are seen by some as being close to home.

June 11, 2010 22:01
The Israeli production of Athol Fugard's 'The Isla

hot guys in jeans mmm 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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With some theatrical works you need to use your imagination – and sometimes overuse it – to find similarities between the onstage action and reality outside the auditorium. That probably isn’t the case with The Island, a play written by the politically contentious South African playwright Athol Fugard in 1974, which is currently running at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa.

The Island is about two actual black political prisoners, John and Winston, who share a cell on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was famously incarcerated for 18 years. While they rehearse for a camp production of Sophocles’s Antigone, they are struck with the contemporary relevance of the tragedy’s message against tyranny.

Besides getting the show shipshape, the director of the current production, Alon Tiran, sees his job as partly trying to convey the universal significance of the play’s message without referencing any particular country or political system. With, for example, some of the ethnic issues at stake in both South Africa and this part of the world, it doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to see how audiences could be prone to projection. Then again, it has been said that the primary strength of Fugard’s work lies in the way in which his works convey strong political messages without being dogmatic.

“I don’t make any effort to accommodate politics in the production, but it is ever-present in the play anyway,” Tiran notes. “But that’s not what drives me in my life or my work. If I wanted to make a political statement I would take a play that was more relevant politically to us.”

Tiran says he prefers a more emotional-spiritual ethos. “The soul of the person is what interests me, and how I can offer people a different perspective. I don’t go for the blatant approach. Anyway, people that see your work can and will interpret it in their own way, so there isn’t much point in trying to hammer messages home.”

Tiran also says that the storyline of the play stems from such an emotive milieu that he did not feel it was his place to try to enrich the already lush and manifold mix. “I aimed as much as possible, in terms of the events portrayed, to neutralize all the elements that might over-stimulate the audience. There really was no need for that.”

Considering his own relatively muted approach, one presumes the 78-year-old Fugard would approve. He chose drama as his medium because he felt that the theater enabled him to reach the largest number of people. But his messages were also discreet enough that his plays could be performed in South Africa, yet strong enough to have an important impact on the audience. While his plays were not explicitly anti-apartheid, the issues cited in them arise as a result of apartheid. Many years ago he said of his writing: “The sense I have of myself is that of a ‘regional’ writer with the themes, textures, acts of celebrations, of defiance and outrage that go with the South African experience. These are the only things I have been able to write about.”

Besides the wider implications, Tiran finds the setting of the main bulk of the play equally fascinating, as well as being fertile ground for letting the imagination loose. “There is humor in The Island, not dark humor. It is amazing to observe the ability of these two people to deal with infinite time. Their predicament is equally pathetic and funny, but it also breaks your heart to see how they live and interact with each other.” Tiran’s take also accommodates, in a sense, the proverbial artist’s suffering as a means of inspiring great work. “Why is it only when we find ourselves in such a situation, like being incarcerated, that we can use our imagination so well? In everyday life we have so much freedom, and so many options open to us, but we don’t get anywhere near the range of imagination that John and Winston achieve on Robben Island.”

Tiran’s efforts to convey the harshness, irony and downright funny side of The Island are commensurately supported by the soundtrack put together by cellist-vocalist Yuval Mesner. Surprisingly, Mesner says most of the music draws on classical sources with very few African rhythms or even jazz or blues. “There aren’t many strong musical motifs in the play, other than classical music,” he explains, adding that he took his musical orientation from Tiran’s approach. “Alon wanted to steer clear of things that would be specifically identified with South Africa.”

Meanwhile, the storyline context of two people thrown together, in a very constructed space, did provide Mesner with some strong energies to feed off. “The dynamics of John and Winston sharing the same cell are very exciting, and it is something that people like to observe keenly. Most people don’t have any experience of spending time in a prison, so it is a bit like being a peeping Tom.” Then again, Mesner himself did serve a prison sentence himself a few years ago after being convicted of rape. “I didn’t dwell too much on that in devising the music for the play but, of course, all our life experience comes into our work as artists, so some things about the prison experience were clear to me.”

Tiran says he was keen to impart of sense of incarceration through the musical score. “The music for the prison scenes is played on wind instruments and percussion instruments, and that is partly because of their association with culture in South Africa. But, for me, prison has something very metallic about it, and I think using wind and percussion instruments together in the same scene naturally generates a metallic and harsh feel.”

Tiran also believes The Island offers a lot of valuable messages for use in day-to-day life, and for taking a different – healthier and more sober – look at history. “We have been taught to revere historical figures and the great ideologists, to relate to them as special people with extraordinary ability. But here, in the prison, when their normal life circumstances have been completely knocked out of equilibrium, all the other natural feelings and instincts spring out. There are the basic animal instincts, and jealousy, and violence. If I want not get any message across, through this production, is that we should be less judgmental, especially when we don’t have the requisite understanding. We have to see where people come from, and what spurs them on. We need to see the so-called icons as real human beings, with all their weaknesses and other attributes. I think that approach is much healthier.”

Thus far, audiences have responded well to the play – there were three shows in May. “I saw that the members of the audience came out of the theater in a different mind-set from when they arrived,” observes Tiran. “I can’t ask for any more than that.”

The Island will be performed (in Hebrew) at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa on June 17-19, July 20-22 and August 19-21.

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