The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter Brook, with Kani and Ntshona. Presented by Garth H. Drabinsky, the Royal National Theatre and the Market Theatre of Johannesburg at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Runs to June 16, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $45-$65. 416-872-1111. Rating: NNN
the island contains all the elements of the indomitable-human-spirit play: pain, struggle and transcendence. Throw in a South Africa-under-apartheid setting, add a couple of wizened actors reprising their roles from a quarter-century ago, and it's no wonder people are rushing to their feet at the Bluma Appel. It's not to applaud the play's originality; they're patting their own liberal selves on the back.
The play, written in 1973, is set on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. On a spare stage, two prisoners lift and cart away invisible rocks, swatting invisible flies but sweating real sweat. Not a word is spoken. This goes on for 10 minutes, and it's powerful theatre.
The men, known only as John and Winston -- presumably after the performers John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who created the piece with Athol Fugard -- then retire to their cell, where they discuss an upcoming production of Sophocles' Antigone. When one of them learns he's to be released in three months, their relationship alters, and the final scene from Antigone takes on great resonance.
That's essentially the play -- literate, poignant, simply written and staged but vague enough in its details, and its politics, that it can be called "universal" by admirers.
It's also highly manipulative and marred by an abrupt ending and uneven performances. The robust Kani is a touch overconfident, too full of audience-pleasing smiles and knitted-brow sadness. But Ntshona is a revelation, especially in a harrowing scene where he glimpses his friend's future.
The background story of the performers' own struggles under apartheid oppression shouldn't matter in assessing the play. On its own terms, as art, it's good, not great.