I’ve just had two very interesting days working with actors Jack Klaff and Jeffrey Kissoon on a revised version of my colleague Matthew Hahn’s play The Robben Island Bible. We prepared a rehearsed reading to open the 20 Years of South African Democracy conference at St Anthony’s College, Oxford and then had a follow up gig in front of the deputy President of South Africa Kgalena Molanthe at South Africa House, as part of his country’s freedom day celebrations
Matt’s play focuses on a banned edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, owned by the then prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam which was surreptitiously passed around the cells on Robben Island camouflaged as a Hindu religious book. Sonny asked each prisoner to sign next to their favourite passage. The choices made, with hindsight, reveal the thoughts, fears and hopes of the men, many of whom would go on to take leading political roles in the formation of the new South Africa.
Matthew spent several years traveling to Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg to interview the surviving signatories about their choice. The raw verbatim material gathered in this process has formed the core of the work.
The first sharing of this material happened at St Mary’s. RSC actor and former St Mary’s lecturer Ian Hughes led a student and staff reading here, in the theatre.
A few weeks later the great South African actor John Kani, who was, at the time, playing Caliban in a touring RSC production of The Tempest, agreed to take part in a further reading at the Richmond Theatre. Matt and I travelled up to Stratford upon Avon to meet John in-between shows and talk through the project and we were amazed by the additional biographical detail he was able to give us about the prisoners, many of whom he’d met through his own participation in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Since then the play has had several readings at The British Library as part of the Cultural Olympiad Restless World exhibition, at the Festival Hall as part of the London Literary Festival and at the Folger Shakespeare Institute in Washington DC.
Matt himself has just returned from directing a production at Montana State University and there are further plans afoot for a reading in Glasgow as part of this summer’s Commonwealth Games celebrations and a tour of South Africa.
It’s been a while since I worked on the material and I’d not met Jack or Jeffrey before we hooked up to rehearse in Oxford on a glorious spring morning. They knew each other of old, Jack played Iago to Jeffrey’s Othello at the Bristol Old Vic in 1990 and they worked together again on The Free State, Janet Suzman’s South African take on The Cherry Orchard, which I remember seeing at the Birmingham Rep in the late nineties.
We spent the morning clarifying the text and finding the rhythm of the new version. Jack’s knowledge of his native country was invaluable and he prompted us to dig underneath the literal meaning of the lines to help grasp the emotional context of the men’s stories. Jeffrey was superb with the Shakespeare - thoughtful, methodical and always looking at the passages with a fresh, almost forensic eye.
They have contrasting approaches. Jack was full of broad brush strokes, keen to demonstrate the men behind the stories. He attacked each section with guts, fury and an impressive range of native accents. Jeffrey’s work is more internalised, he draws you to him and makes you listen carefully to each word. Early on I wondered if I’d be able to pull them into the same play, but as the day developed they began to complement each other, bringing colour and texture to the exchanges and creating the necessary variation in pace needed to keep an audience engaged for the full forty five minutes.
By the afternoon we’d settled down, making final decisions over line readings and working with more precision to try and communicate our understanding of some of the meanings behind the men’s choices.
We began to see that often a contemporary English understanding of a key passage transforms completely when it’s juxtaposed with the biographical detail of the Robben Island prisoner who signed next to it. The most remarkable example comes in Wilton Mkwayi’s choice of the forged letter used to trick Malvolio in Twelfth Night. A traditional reading of this letter would focus on Malvolio’s gullibility and naivety. We laugh along because we’re in on the trick and want the steward’s Puritan pedantry revenged. However, when you realise that Wilton became engaged just before his incarceration and had to wait 23 years before he was released and could finally marry his fiance the end of the letter - ‘Farewell, She that would alter services with thee, The fortunate unhappy’ - takes on a completely different poignancy.
The last words of the play are Nelson Mandela’s choice from Julius Caesar
‘Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.’
Instinctively I’d given these to Jeffrey, based partly on the fact that he brilliantly played Caesar in Greg Doran’s acclaimed East African production at the RSC two years ago. When it came to it he was uneasy about picking up the lines again and gently protested that he’d find it very difficult to deliver them in any other way than he’d learnt for that run.
Jack was happy to take them up and delivered a pitch perfect Mandela impersonation which was spookily life like. For a moment I wondered whether the impact of having a bearded white man voice, so accurately, the former president might surprise the audience to such an extent that the prophetic impact of the lines would be lost in astonishment but both Jack and Jeffrey were, perhaps for different reasons, enthusiastically endorsing this new ending with wide grins. We kept it in. In the theatre it’s sometimes a very thin line between parody and goose bumps.
The reading itself was strange. Jeffrey worked deliberately, but, in the limited time we’d had to prepare, struggled a little to find some of the lighter touches. Jack tried to compensate for this and, towards the end, began to speed up. The balmy evening made the lecture theatre airless and the delegates, straight from an agreeable College dinner, seemed attentive rather than enthusiastic. Afterwards in the Senior Common Room everybody was incredibly complementary and several of the audience seemed genuinely moved by the work. In truth, I think, it dragged a bit.
Next day we met early in the sumptuous library at South Africa house. Overnight I’d made some cuts to try and streamline the narrative.
The prisoners who signed the bible fall into two main categories. There are the original Rivonia trialists and their associates who came onto the Island in the mid-sixties and a second wave, the black consciousness prisoners, who were incarcerated after the Soweto uprisings in 1976.
The cuts fell mostly on the passages nominated by the former group who tended use their choice to outline a philosophical or even metaphysical position about life as a prisoner. The new version I presented to Jack and Jeffrey focused instead on the more overtly political readings chosen by the second generation. Sadly, some of the humour went too.
As always there were some well-meaning grumbles of favourite passages lost but, in the main, both actors embraced the streamlined text and set about renegotiating the transitions from section to section.
The reading itself went very well and was warmly received by the Deputy President and the hundred or so invited guests, esteemed South Africans now resident in London. The play had a special resonance for Molanthe as he was sentenced to ten years on Robben Island in the late seventies and early eighties, under the terrorism act. It’s the first time we’ve played the show in front of a former prisoner.
In the Q&A afterwards Dillon Woods, the son of the legendary campaigning anti-apartheid journalist Donald Woods, noted that the prisoners highlighted in the play had come from a range of political organisations, some oppositional to the now ruling ANC, he wondered whether the time had come to recognise that the struggle for democracy in South Africa involved many different voices and opinions beyond Mandela and Molanthe’s own party. Amazing that twenty years on from the first democratic elections in South Africa we’re sitting in the High Commission listening to these conversations take place.
What greater value can a piece of Drama have than to provide the stimulus for a debate of this nature, asking difficult questions of those in power, keeping authority in check, whilst reminding us of the sacrifices and battles that have allowed us to be here in the first place?