Friday, 18 May 2012

Africa Utopia.

To the South Bank for a meeting with Martin Colthorpe who has programmed a rehearsed reading of Matt's Robben Island Bible on July 3rd as part of the Africa Utopia season. I'm going to direct it.

The Bible in the title refers to a disguised complete works of Shakespeare belonging to Sonny Venkatratham, a prisoner in the infamous jail on Robben Island, where so many activist opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa were sent in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

I've spent the last couple of days editing down the vast amount of verbatim research that Matt's carried out into a 45 minute piece. It's been tricky work , not least because so much of the sprawling text is fascinating, but in the end I've been guided by a need to focus on the simple dramatic story of The Bible itself. How it was originally smuggled onto the island. How it was passed from prisoner to prisoner and finally the individual stories of why each man chose the Shakespearean passage they did to sign and be remembered by.

In the process some great narratives have been cut and filed away. The story of the men's arrest. The brutality of the guards in the early years on the island. The patience of wives, children and friends left on the mainland and the disappointment that the Utopian republic that many of the men had dreamt of has not come to fruition. I hope in another instance these stories will find a way to be told.

We're sharing the platform with Ashwin Desai, whose just written a book on education and Robben Island called Reading Revolution. I'm looking forward to meeting him and placing what we know about The Bible in the wider context of the makeshift University that was set up to share knowledge and equip the men for revolutionary activity beyond the prison.

The more I look at the interviews and read the passages chosen in the context of the struggle for liberation that all the prisoners on Robben Island, regardless of faction, were involved in. The more I'm struck by the resilience of words and the importance of language in crystallising acts of resistance, defiance or bravery.

One man teaches a colleague how to smuggle a gun across a border, in return he is given insight into the meaning of a Sonnet. The exchange leaves both better prepared for the future they will need to face. Both are acts and once carried out cannot be reversed.

It's interesting, but perhaps unsurprising, to note how many of the men, incarcerated for 10, 15, 20 years chose passages relating to Time. In Shakespeare this grand theme takes on two antithetical dimensions, both of which are made apparent in the interviews. One one hand 'time' is the great enemy of love. A destroyer of the perfect moment, a threat to beauty, youth and promise. On the other it is an urgent force refusing to wait, unable to be patient. It's easy to see how Shakespeare offered inspiration, encouragement, warning and solace to the men who would later construct the first multiracial democracy in South Africa.

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