"Yes, they'll laugh. But who cares about that as long as they laugh in the beginning and listen at the end. That's all we want them to do … listen at the end!"
The Island is set inside the cell of two inmates on Robben Island, where many black political prisoners including Nelson Mandela were incarcerated during the Apartheid. Nearly twenty five years after the breakdown of the South African regime, putting on this play is no longer inherently an act of radical defiance. The performers do not risk legal action if they are found to be involved, and the title no longer needs to be changed to obscure its subject matter. But the foundation of the play, and its questions - about the value given to people's lives, morality, human relationships and honour - are still important and still resonate loudly in the world we live in today. In the quote above, John (played by Mark Springer) is assuaging the trepidation of his cellmate Winston (played by Edward Dede) about performing the part of Antigone in the play within this play. But his words speak directly to our audience, too. He was right, we laughed at the beginning. The comedy was expertly teased from the subtle script, the playful relationship between the two cellmates painted with such a light, human touch. But we were also listening at the end; in fact we were listening in rapture all the way through this gripping, subtle, intense, real and moving production.
The idea of laughter, or mirth, as a gateway to influence runs through the whole piece, and this was something well achieved in this particular production. Through the laughter we see them share, we are allowed an insight into the workings of the relationship. Springer's John is proud, loud and funny but also loving and vulnerable; his bold gestures and hugely animated facial expressions belie his role as the dominant half of the pair. He is the counterpart to Dede's Winston, who is more delicate, with his soft graceful hands and infectious giggle, but has a stronger tendency to intense anger, jealousy, and desperation. There's a moment where John play-acts a phone call to the outside world, enamel mug pressed to his ear, teasing Winston with half an imaginary conversation. I realised in this moment that I was so engrossed in the onstage lives of the two men that I almost believed John was talking to someone, while simultaneously finding Winston's childlike naivety in his own misplaced belief funny and endearing. This remarkable, multilayered suspension of disbelief is a credit to the two actors and their onstage connection. And it means that, when their political/moral messages come, I am still listening.
The most salient message for me being about the inequality of value given to one person's life over another. The play explores this in an explicit way by centring on the Apartheid, but also looks at the subtlety of the phenomenon – it can seep into the way that the men themselves talk and think about their lives. Winston compares his life-long sentence to John's possible, countable freedom, asking, "God gave me also ten fingers, what do I count, my life? How do I count?" How can one person with ten fingers and another with ten fingers have such different existences to count? It moves quickly from the literal, to the abstract in context, to the broad abstract, reverberating through the world of the audience. The in the round staging of the piece fosters this call for us to look at ourselves, as we literally look at other members of the audience reacting to the piece. John and Winston are among us whilst being starkly apart, the pointed corners of the plain, stark prison stage seeming to jab out into the auditorium.
And the constant jostles - of society against humanity, finite life against abstract morality, thought against time - are laid bare, with all their ugly imbalances and impossible complexities.
So in the end, this play has a universal resonance which has not faded with time. It is most importantly perhaps a play driven by character, and this production of it has a strong beating heart at its centre.