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Monday, March 24, 2014


(Simemezelo Xulu & Lungani Mabaso)

Powerful and moving performances from third-year students. (Review by Keith Millar)

In a celebration of Human Rights Day and 20 years of democracy in South Africa the Department of Drama and Production Studies at the Durban University of Technology have for the past week staged Athol Fugard’s apartheid era play, The Island.

Written in collaboration with theatre activists John Kani and Winston Ntshona this intense drama brought world attention to the brutality, and inhumane treatment, experienced by prisoners on Robben Island.

The two-hander opens with an extended mime of a punitive punishment the prisoners were subjected to. Each has to dig a hole and fill a barrow only to tip it into the other’s hole. The energy expended soon had the actors perspiring heavily – and they mimed the actions for about ten minutes in an air-conditioned hall. One can only imagine what it must have been like to do this all day on Robben Island in the blazing sun. It is little wonder that they regarded working in the quarry as a perk.

The two characters, John and Winston, have developed a strong and supportive relationship despite the hardships. They are shackled together for much of the time; share a tiny cell, a single mug and even a single washcloth. However, it is impossible to control their thoughts and at night they keep each other entertained by telling stories, or making fantasy phone calls home. Despite everything they are able retain their dignity, and humanity.

John is informed by the authorities that his appeal has been successful and that he will be released in three months Winston, on the other hand, is in for life. Although he is happy for his friend, he relates with desperation and despair what his future will be like. It is heartrending and one can’t help but share in his pain.

They are also rehearsing a scene from  the classic Greek tragedy, Antigone, by Sophocles, which is to be performed as part of a concert to be presented by the prisoners. In the play, Antigone defies the laws of the state on principal alone, and is condemned to death. Not dissimilar to the fate of many South Africans who were sentenced to years of hard labour, or death, due only to their defiance of what they regarded as unfair laws.

The roles of John and Winston were played by third-year students Simemezelo Xulu and Lungani Mabaso. Both put in powerful and moving performances which I am sure would have impressed John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Direction was by Professor Brian Pearce. They all also deserve kudos for achieving an accomplished production away from their normal home. The Courtyard Theatre at DUT is currently undergoing renovation and the production had to be staged in the Arthur Smith Hall at the City Campus. As a student production The Island was a fine effort and certainly up to the standard one has come to expect from DUT.

The Island is a harsh and serious drama. It keeps you on the edge of your seat and rather tense throughout. While it may serve as an apt reminder of the past, one can’t help wondering if something a little more enjoyable and forward-looking may not have been better to celebrate the progress the country has made in the past 20 years. – Keith Millar