The opening scene of The Island was a test of endurance, which proved too much for two audience members. The prolonged sequence immersed the audience in the anguish of the task being performed by the two characters on stage. Sweat, heat, tears, exhaustion were experienced by all watching, as the audience was transported to the beach of an island.
Set in the 1970s the play is a prison set drama that has similarities to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held. It comments on apartheid and the treatment of black political prisoners.
The monotonous task dreamt up by the prisoners’ captor and the subsequent punishment of the prisoners is our introduction to characters John (Mark Springer) and Winston (Edward Dede). The intimacy of the pair is demonstrated as they treat each other’s wounds and we get an insight into their relationship as cell mates.
The majority of the play is set in their cell and we are provided with ring side seats to experience how they distract and entertain themselves whilst away from the physical labour.
The pair joke they were ‘married’ on the day they first met, having been shackled together for the last three years. We observe the ‘couple’ laughing, protecting and resenting each other, bickering and arguing over the simplest of domestic duties. Despite these quarrels we witness their intense relationship which is tested once John receives notice that his sentence has been reduced. We then experience Winston’s turmoil and anguish as he worries about what will happen to him but at the same time wanting to be happy for his friend’s early release.
The prison mates are preparing to perform ‘The Trail of Antigone’ for a prison performance. The education of Winston by John in preparation for the role of Antigone provides some much needed light relief and humour. However as the play within a play is performed for the prison staff and inmates the messages of injustice and honour become apparent. As Antigone (played by Winston) makes her final speech, the parallel between the Greek tragedy and the black political prisoners situation is apparent for all to see; ‘ I go now to my living death, because I honour those things to which honour belongs’.
The Tobacco Factory affords an intimate arena to truly immerse the audience into the prison cell and to share and experience first hand the characters’ anguish and suffering, both physically and mentally.
The Island plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 27th May
Image by Joel Fildes, with thanks