Theater Review: The Island

By Athol Fugard, translated by Anton Shamas, Directed by Alon Tiran Simta, July 11

The Theater of Voices 311 (photo credit: Klaus Holsting)
The Theater of Voices 311
(photo credit: Klaus Holsting)
The title of Fugard’s The Island refers, of course, to the infamous Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. John and Winston, named for the actors who originally created and portrayed them, are both black. John (Yoav Donat) has been sentenced to 10 years, Winston (Yossi Tzabari) to life.
They are cell-mates, political prisoners incarcerated on the island, subject to senseless, hard labor, humiliation and whatever else can be devised to break their spirits. In their cell they come up with stratagems to pass the time, like “calling home.” They rehearse a scene from Antigone to be presented to the prison community. It is John who urges this; Winston is reluctant. Then John learns his sentence has been reduced – almost as arbitrarily as it was imposed.
On the face of it, The Island is an indictment of South Africa’s former apartheid regime. Were it just that, the drama would today be a period piece. But no, the clue is Antigone, whose doomed heroine takes on the might of the State, personified in Creon. The Island, then, is certainly an anthem to the human spirit, but, like Antigone (and here lies its enduring force), it is most deeply about oppressor and oppressed, about the warping of the moral order, about the moral rot that is the inevitable result, and certainly none of that has changed an iota – anywhere.
That director Tiran, actors Donat and Tzabari are alive to the drama’s real center is obvious. Against Niv Manor’s bleak cage of a set, the actors play their hearts out. They crackle. They are physical, passionate, committed, but the characters’ essence has eluded them.
Their anguish, pain, anger, elation – all the gamut of human emotion – mostly stay on the surface, because what fuels the characters is their deep-down resolve to hang on. Their desperation is all they have and it gives them the courage they need. This the actors have not internalized.