Note: The following review dates from this production's previous run at the National Theatre.
Some theatre events resonate beyond the mere words that comprise them, but the special power of The Island is that it's transcends purely verbal communication even in its staging.
This seminal work of political as well as deeply personal theatre was first staged in full in 1974 at London's Royal Court, though it was originally developed in South Africa's Cape Town where a draft version was presented twice the year before. Over a quarter of a century later, the specific circumstances it describes - of incarceration on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, its most famous prisoner, was held for some 22 years - may, happily, be no more, but the courage with which it was created, and the extraordinary courage of its two thrilling actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who co-wrote it with Athol Fugard, remains a shining beacon of the power of theatre across the ages.
It opens with the sight of the two prisoners doing hard labour on the island; not a meaningful word, beyond grunts and sighs, is uttered for the first 15 minutes. Instead, we are riveted by the sight of these two, now elderly, men, and the amazingly realistic mime they play out; the sweat generated, however, is genuinely for real.
This is a radical way to begin a play, even now; but 26 years ago, in the days before Theatre de Complicite and other physical theatre companies introduced this vocabulary of the body to our theatre, it must have seemed even more astonishing. No wonder that Peter Brook - who is credited with assisting the actors in restaging the production - is such an admirer. Like Brook's work, it strips theatre right back to its essence. There is nothing superfluous here - no extraneous props, no fussy design, just a virtually bare stage, the two actors and the story they have to tell.
The work goes on to draw on other theatrical experience, specifically drawing on parallels with the Greek tragedy Antigone and a performance of it that two prisoners are planning for their fellows on the island. But, as beautifully embodied by Ntshona and Kani - who have previously appeared as the tramps in a revelatory South African production of Waiting for Godot that played at the Old Vic over a decade ago - the two men's dependency on each other and their brave stand together against the futility of their situation is deeply reminiscent of Beckett's equally resilient characters, too.
Out of this compressed theatrical language, an extremely powerful piece of drama emerges that thrillingly draws on the actors long history of working together.