Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Robben Island Reading.

A really good day at the South Bank working on The Robben Island Bible reading in the Purcell Room with our excellent cast. Vincent and Chuk were joined by the twinkling Cornelius McCarthy, currently in rehearsal to play Jesse Owens in Tom McNab's new play at Sadler's Wells.

We worked fast, setting some ground rules, marking the changes from one section to another and negotiating the Shakespeare. The key to understanding The Bible and, I think, to making real sense of Matt's script, is to put aside of any Euro-centric contextual understanding of the chosen passages and re imbue each with the context of the men's incarceration. The most notable example is Wilton Mkwayi's choice of Malvolio's letter from Twelfth Night 'If this fall into your hand, revolve...'

In Twelfth Night itself the letter is planted and the key part of an elaborate gull designed to humiliate the puritan steward Malvolio. The audience are of course in on the joke and, sympathetic to the rowdy fun of the play's clowns, delight in Malvolio's developing misunderstanding of his circumstance.

Wilton's circumstance was different. At the time of his imprisonment with his fellow Rivonia trialists, in January 1965, he'd recently become engaged to Irene. Every six months she was allowed to visit. On these occasions Wilton was allowed to go down to the small harbour and watch the boat arrive. However, the arrival didn't automatically lead to reunion. Often the guards, having fulfilled the brief that close relatives be allowed to see each other, would turn the boat around and send families back to the mainland, leaving the prisoners to wait for a further six months.

Chuk plays Wilton and we decided to imagine the speech as a letter of encouragement from Irene. Taken in this context the words...'appear fresh,' 'put thyself in the trick of singularity''she thus advises thee that sighs for thee, 'Farewell. She that would alter services with thee. The fortunate unhappy,' suddenly take on a striking and moving new resonance. Chuk imagined reading it, with the boat disappearing in the distance.

Wilton married Irene immediately prior to his release in 1987. She died the year after.

Some of the hardest passages to find a context for were the Sonnets. Vincent made the fascinating point that as many of the men had had a Marxist political training, it was the dialectical construction of the Sonnets that may well have proved attractive. This gave us a way in. Treated as rational argument rather than passionate confession they also took on fresh meaning.

Time flew by, but by 5pm, we had a good shape and had made all of our decisions. The actors broke to grab a bite to eat and to let the notes settle whilst Matt and I went off to the reception.

The event itself went really well. I was delighted, given the short time we'd had, how brilliantly the three actors found a common narrative and held the story. Afterwards the 300 strong audience stayed for a Q & A with Ashwin Desai, who's recently written on the education structures devised by the Prisoners on the island, South African actress Pamela Nomvette, Vincent and Matt. It was a very inspiring evening.

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