Review: The Island

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After being welcomed into a black box-esque auditorium, reminiscent of an Edinburgh Fringe performance space, the story of The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, presented by Elysium Theatre Company, is brought to life by Jake Murray’s exquisitely thought-through direction and impressive performances from the actors’ Daniel Poyser and Ewen Cummins. Set during the apartheid in a prison that appears to be based on Robben Island Prison in South Africa, Winston (Daniel Poyser) and John (Ewen Cummins). Having met in the prison, the two are planning to put on the show Antigone together, for the other inmates, with Winston being not as keen as John in this endeavour! An emotional drama with moments of comedy embedded in the narrative through the character dynamic, The Island is an engaging watch that sensitively portrays the harsh conditions of being in this prison.

The standout element of the whole production is the performance of the actors. The commitment demonstrated by both performers was so impressive that there was not a moment of disengagement. Both embody their characters so brilliantly and deliver flawless naturalistic performances. Only being a two-person cast, their energy is also something to be commended, as they keep the levels high for the whole play. As a result of these admirable performances, it was easy to be absorbed into the story and be impacted by the emotions the actors were portraying.

The commitment demonstrated by both performers was so impressive that there was not a moment of disengagement

Another great outcome of these fantastic performances was the sense of place the actors created. The tough conditions of living in a prison clearly came through with clever direction from Murray. The gruelling manual labour the cellmates had to partake in each day is narrated to the audience through physical actions, with no props, of digging, carrying and pushing a wheelbarrow. The physicality of both actors capture the exhaustion that comes from heavy lifting and as an audience, we begin to understand the environment they live in. The choice to repeat this sequence a number of times demonstrates the difficulty of the monotonous days the cellmates had to face. This creates atmosphere and accurately shows the forcefulness of the place the cellmates had to live in.

Further evidence of great direction was apparent through the relationship between the two characters. Two distinct characters are presented and this crucially removes any feeling of repetition. The dynamic the two develop is created through a father-son-like relationship. Winston takes on the role of the son as John acts as a guiding father figure. One moment this is demonstrated is when John is trying to convince Winston that performing Antigone is a good idea, as Winston is not convinced. John’s demeanour and encouraging tone paint the dynamic perfectly as he injects Winston with the passion he possesses for performing Antigone. When the pair come to perform the show, this previous choice make the play even more moving as Winston is fully committed to his role; it is a clear testament to the great friendship these two have developed.

Further evidence of great direction was apparent through the relationship between the two characters

A confident performance is accompanied by a beautifully constructed set. As an end-on stage, there is a sand-coloured backdrop that is a versatile set piece, being used as the curtains for the Antigone performance. In terms of set pieces, there were two sleeping mats, a bucket and a few other props for the Antigone performance. The minimalism was ideal for the show. It kept a great flow to the performance and allowed the acting to shine through and act as the main storytelling element.

This performance of The Island nails the subtleties of theatre, which ties the whole production together. The energy levels and clear characters are highlights of the performance. With a serious premise that is sensitively injected with comical moments, this is an excellent production. The Island embodies all the qualities that are required to create a seamless and memorable production.

Image credit: Victoria Wai Photography

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