Saturday, 21 February 2009

This Island's Mine!

A wonderful day!

Up early and off to Stratford upon Avon to see the matinee of The Tempest performed in riotous colour by the young Baxter Theatre company from Cape Town, supported by Tony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban.

The production itself is incredible - carefully structured around key lines drawing on the dynamics of colonialism. The ending where Sher's Prospero - fights his lines but ultimately fails to convincingly forgive his enemies only to turn the final As you from crimes would pardon'd be, Let your indulgence set me free to Kani's Caliban who angrily rushes back onto the stage to break up the Epilogue, is literally breathtaking. They walk alongside each other in distrust and only once Sher has quit the stage, watched all the way, does Kani throw away the crutches he's been leaning on throughout and stand to reclaim his land.

Twenty minutes later he greeted us warmly at stage door and we went off for coffee.

'I based my whole interpretation on Caliban' line This island's MINE...' said John, tapping out the rhythm on the table in front of him. 'Caliban is not a slave... never a slave. He is not subservient. He spends the entire play trying to murder Prospero. The idea that he is some slippery servant, half man, half fish is in other's minds. In his own he is a force of resistance just waiting to reclaim his own land. How else could he find the language, the power to deliver Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. They're the most beautiful lines in the play.'

Matt brought out his lab top and showed John the images of each signature in The Robben Island Bible. John greeted each new picture with a whoop of recognition and launched immediately into a story for each man.

'I knew all the brothers. Nelson, Govan (MBeki), Ahmy (Kathrada), Walter (Sisulu) of the older generation. They were sophisticated political operators, distinguished men, thoughtful men. My elder brother was also imprisoned for five years on Robben Island. It is impossible to understand how the Boers in Pretoria could not negotiate with these men. When one of us asked Walter why the ANC couldn't respond to events quicker he shrugged and said Well it takes a long while to get all these elderly gentlemen together.'

'I was in the next generation of ANC with Saths Cooper, Steve Biko, Govan's son Thabo. We were really into Africa as a nation. We had huge Afros and at the start of every meeting we would open by putting our hands on our hearts and singing....' John paused to allow us to fill the gap.
'Nkosi Sikeli Africa?' I guessed with reverence
... 'No...Young, Gifted and Black...' sang John, laughing and grabbing my arm to reassure me that I wasn't the first to fall for the story.

'Saths thought he was an actor... but none of them were really. The were just revolutionaries and when you are a revolutionary you sacrifice everything for the message. This becomes shouting, it's not a play. You can't act it. We met Athol Fugard - but because he was white there was suspicion of us working with him. He is a revolutionary, but he understands struggle as a play'

John and other black theatre makers like Mannie Manim and Winston Ntshona association with Fugard led to deeply humanistic pieces such as The Island, Sizwe Banzi is Dead and Master Harold and the Boys which as they toured Europe and America in the seventies and eighties provided a consciousness raising clarion call to support the anti-apartheid movement. At home producing work in an apartheid regime was often difficult.

'When I first played Othello I kept being detained because every night I was kissing a white woman, so every night I was committing an offence. The officer would say to me. On page 7 it says you embrace and you kiss her... why does this happen. I was impressed he'd read it. Most authority doesn't read literature, because they don't understand metaphor. Authority is literal. So I would say well, it would be great if Laurence Olivier continued to play this role, but whenever he kisses actresses his make up rubs off on them and they don't like it.'

'Often though there was great protests. I can remember I gave the first kiss between a black actor and white actress, Sandra Prinsloo, on stage in Miss Julie it was 1982. Every night hundreds of people walked out. One protest was led by an eminent professor who gave the signal to walk out by standing up at the moment of the kiss. The chairs went up and 300 people went out... but 200 stayed and booed the protest and gave us a five minute standing ovation to encourage us to continue.'

'I had many death threats during this run and one night I was careless. If I ever thought I was being followed in my car I would turn left and left again. If the car still followed I'd go straight home. This night I didn't see the car. It rammed me from behind, another car blocked my path ahead and I woke up fifteen days later in intensive care with eleven stab wounds, I'd been left for dead. For a while nobody could find me. The hospitals didn't want any publicity so I wasn't registered. Two years later my younger brother, a poet was shot dead reading a poem at the funeral of a nine year old girl killed by the police during a riot.'

'The problem is that we are often talked about as victims, but we are the victors - we were just waiting. We were angry at the end and Nelson had to convince us about the concept of reconciliation. We didn't want it. We wanted revenge and tribunal. Truth and reconciliation? There was nothing to reconcile. Nelson said If we can save lives through this process will you give me the mandate. When the truth and reconciliation commission came to our town I asked my mother if she wanted to go and see the man who murdered my younger brother, but she didn't want to live with the memory and she felt her story had been told already by the many other mothers who were facing the murderers of their children. I couldn't go. I was not ready. So I wrote a play instead. The act of creation helps to unearth what is in the heart.'

As he talked it became more and more apparent to me why The Tempest truly is a powerful play about the recent history of South Africa. Mandela and the other brothers in the ANC were at once Caliban and Prospero, caught in a storm. Their story was not just of resistance to the colonial power but of refining their art whilst waiting to be brought home from exile.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

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