PITY, TERROR, TRIUMPH
For the first fifteen of the hundred minutes no word is spoken by the two men in ragged prison cottons: Edward Dede as the younger Winston, Mark Springer a powerful monolithic figure as John. As we sit around silent, almost awkward,they mime intense labour. Muscles gleam, sweat breaks, as they lift and shovel and push and strain with harsh breaths. It becomes oppressive. It is meant to. John Terry’s direction does not spare us because nothing spared these prisoners. Athol Fugard’s play about Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27years to 1988, needs to make it clear that what the political internees endured was not only imprisonment but enslavement.
He wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the originals of these two characters, who performed it for many years (and several arrests) during the years when the island was still in use, its very name forbidden. It has become a modern classic, a hard and dour and ultimately redemptive vision of endurance and imagination. The two men, once released (and releasing us) from the day’s labour sit with their bedrolls and single cell bucket and begin to talk, to plan, to become the humans they are and no longer labouring beasts. In a moment of sudden piercing pathos John says of the sweltering beach they work on “same old sea sand I used to play with when I was young..”.
They are to perform a version of the trial of Antigone at a prison concert (this happened) and there is humour and no small conflict as John, the more educated, nags Winston about his part; they bring out the pathetic props – Creon’s tin-lid medallion, Antigone’s daft rope-ringleted wig and necklace of nails. It seems as if Winston won’t do it: but their bond is strong, built on their shared, consoling fantasies: of phone calls home or acted-out nights at the “bioscope”. Tha word jolted me with familiarity: I hadn’t heard cinema called that since I was a child in Johannesburg, a diplo-brat as aghast as my parents during the apartheid years .
The simple account – jolted again by the agony of both after hearing that John will be released in three months. Winston agonizes because he has years to run; John – in a way only prisoners can understand – because the very act of counting days, fearing and hoping, is a new and strange kind of pain in itself. Winston overcomes his fear of mockery in the daft wig as John teaches him the great theatrical lesson “behind all this rubbish is me…if they laugh at the beginning and listen at the end…”. Antigone’s trial is performed. One of the oldest stories of law, power, injustice and rightfulness in the world, yet still we hold our breath. Southwark is its last point on the tour: it is a co-production with Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster. It has lost none of its pity and terror.
box office www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk 020 7407 0234 to 24 June