By Matthew Hahn
52 pp. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney* (Canada)

This is a play based on the words of Robben Island prisoners incarcerated during the apartheid period in South Africa. It is a play incorporating parts of many other plays, selections, in fact, from the entire Shakespeare canon, words and lines that spoke directly to these prisoners in their unique circumstances.

How Shakespeare infiltrated the Robben Island prison is a fascinating chapter in this extraordinary volume. Reading material was limited to religious texts. One of the Indian prisoners, Sonny Ventratkathnam, managed to smuggle in The Collected Works of Shakespeare by putting Deepavali stickers on the cover. The volume, which became known as the Hindu Bible, was circulated enthusiastically among the prisoners—including Nelson Mandela—as a source of animated discussion.

This play, based on that experience, is composed of actual verbatim dialogue spoken by two generations of prisoners who, choosing their favorite passages from the Bard, discuss textual meanings in terms that range from hilarious to profound. The turbulent lives that emerge energize every scene.

The evolution of this work is itself a study in vision and artistic perseverance. In 2012, The British Museum contacted journalist John Battersby to locate the actual Shakespeare volume for inclusion in its travelling “Shakespeare Staging the World” exhibition. His search led him to the American playwright and academic Matthew Hahn, who, after reading a biography of Nelson Mandela by Anthony Sampson, travelled to South Africa to interview eight of fifteen surviving Robben Island prisoners mentioned in the volume.

Hahn himself put some of the texts that had been read and discussed alongside some of his interviews, weaving the script that is The Robben Island Shakespeare. First done as a staged reading in England, in 2009, it has since been performed in England, the U.S. and South Africa as recently as 2016. Other productions are sure to follow now that the playtext is available.

An informed, passionate foreword by the distinguished South African actor, playwright and cultural activist John Kani navigates the reader along a sharp journey through South African history. He recalls that his own literary education started with Shakespeare’s sonnets which were being taught in the school curriculum to encourage English spoken with “the Queen’s accent.”

In 1955, Shakespeare study was, however, removed “from the native child’s education” as apartheid educators decided that the continued inclusion of Shakespeare in the curriculum would fill native students with unrealistic notions about life. Years later, and now translated into the Xhosa language, Julius Caesar was taught because it demonstrated that those who rose up against state authority would be punished. Kani’s teacher, however, chose to interpret somewhat differently. For him, it was really about the demise of dictators and imposed ideas.

Kani’s own connections with Shakespeare continued when, in 1987, the South African born actress Janet Suzman approached him to play the title role in her production of Othello. Clearly a flagrant flouting of the laws of apartheid, the company had to contend with the Immorality Act “which forbade love across the colour line.” The State Police saw the production as “a direct affront to . . . racial segregation policies.” White audience members gasped at the contact between Othello and Desdemona, while blacks cheered. Kani himself says he felt triumph in “the victory and power of the arts,” realizing how closely the police must have had to read the text.

For Kani, Shakespeare became a kind of African griot, a story-teller, “whose use of words fit exactly” into his own Xhosa language. This was obviously seen as well by playwright Matthew Hahn, who said that the prisoners on Robben Island “appropriated Shakespeare’s words to reflect . . . their own lives.”

The play itself is composed of ten short scenes. Although originally performed with sixteen actors, Hahn says it can be performed by a cast of as few as six, each playing multiple roles, with a separation to be made when actors are speaking to each other or to the audience. These transitions between worlds are structured seamlessly into the story-telling style of the play as a whole. Staging details are also kept clear and simple reflecting Robben Island’s tiny cells and cement floors which were “always wet, especially when the tide comes in.”

The piece is packed with event. From Prime Minister Voerward’s 1961 speech rationalizing apartheid as “good neighborliness,” to the generational division between the younger Black Consciousness Movement and the iconography surrounding older prisoners such as Mandela and Sisulu. Both personal and political, the drama is forceful, the humor and insight constant.

When discussing King Lear, for example, the conversation among the prisoners (as the book is passed secretly around) translates from Xhosa as: “What the hell’s wrong with this king? Why doesn’t he get all of the elders to come and help make decisions instead of listening to his crooked daughters?” It is in lines that have become universal wisdom about everything from leadership anxiety, to thinking before you act, to the one defect that corrupts a whole life, to the sound and fury of existence, (“a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing”) that the prisoners most profoundly take their comfort and strength.

Theatrical innovation matches human invention. We learn that one prisoner is teaching others to write by taking little pieces of slate back to the cells on stone-breaking days and forming letters. Or, again, pieces of paper are created from an old cement bag to lodge a complaint “that must be in writing.” The inspired, illicit activity is even danced. Robben Island’s harsh stone quarry itself became the “University of Robben Island,” where Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, for example, inspires inmates to remain true to the cause: “No, Time, thou shall not boast that I do change . . . I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.”

The internal division among prisoners in the play is particularly interesting. The young men of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko, were mostly disaffected youth who roared out of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, young men who wanted immediate action. The play reveals that when many arrived at the prison they found an older generation of revolutionaries who seemed too comfortable there. For the young, Shakespeare echoed their fight in the lines: “the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude.” Clearly, they failed to see how fiercely the older prisoners’ accommodation with Robben Island’s power structure had been fought for and what political gains their basic stability actually represented.

I visited South Africa in 2008 for an extended academic stay in the country (with admitted trepidation, due to the country’s troubled past) and found John Battersby’s observation to be true: “Apartheid has been air-brushed out of common usage.”

It is also necessary to acknowledge the conclusion drawn by Sonny Ventrakathnam that, as Shakespeare points out, power corrupts. So, inevitably, “yesterday’s Communists are today’s Capitalists. . . . Poor township people who sacrificed the most are still poor township people.”

Which is to say that The Robben Island Shakespeare is perhaps more relevant than ever, both in South Africa and globally, for its unique take on the power of art to respond to political oppression.

Somewhat ironically, Robben Island today is both a nature preserve and an emotionally charged visitor centre, where former prisoners tell their harrowing stories and show you their cells. In the play, we learn that when the island was still a prison, boat drivers on their way there with new inmates deliberately rammed the waves to create discomfort.

Ten years ago, I took the same rough boat ride and cannot imagine it any other way. My sense of life on Robben Island during apartheid was forever changed by that visit. And has been further deepened by this brave theatrical work that deserves continual reading and staging.


*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian theatre and poetry critic, as well as a widely-published poet and novelist. A long-time professor of English and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University, her most recent novel, about Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company, is called One Man Dancing.

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The Robben Island Shakespeare
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