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Shocking insight into the brutality of apartheid

The Island, The Theatre, Chipping Norton, until May 20 (exc May 14).

Breathtaking performances from the two stars in this extraordinary play about the brutality inflicted on the victims of the apartheid regime in South Africa won a standing ovation.

The play was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972 but it has lost none of its power to shock - and never will, so long as man is capable of inflicting terrible harm on his fellows.

The island is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, and the two protagonists, John and Winston, are cellmates. The play’s opening segment is a slow build with the two characters set to work, each one filling a wheelbarrow with sand and delivering it to the other, who has to fill his own wheelbarrow and deliver the sand back.

The pointless and exhausting task, aimed at breaking both mind and body, is carried out under the blazing sun and the sadistic eyes of the unseen guard.

The actors, Mark Springer and Edward Dede, mime this unspeakable cruelty with no props and no scenery, yet make it astonishingly believeable. The sweat rolls as they get closer and closer to breaking point, always fearing the crack of a whip or the blow of a rifle butt.

Back in their cell the two plan the staging of a play, Antigone, which they will perform for fellow prisoners and the guards.

The metaphor of the play-within-the-play is clear. Antigone is all about the misuse of power by an overweening state: Sophocles’s eponymous heroine is threatened with execution for the crime of burying her brother who had fallen in battle. But that’s an offence only because the all-powerful king says it is.

Would the injustice meted out to Antigone resonate with the guards on the island? That’s beyond the scope of play, but we all know it wouldn’t.

In 1972 Mandela was still 10 years from freedom. And now, although apartheid has been consigned to the dustbin of history, there seem to be as many overweening states and brutal guards at work, restricting freedoms and inflicting pain on the innocent, as ever.

Congratulations to the Chipping Norton Theatre and director John Terry for this excellent, powerful production; and rarely will two performances have been more deserving of a standing ovation.

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