I first heard about a copy of the ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote [http://robbenislandbible.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/o-what-men-dare-do-by-anthony-sampson.html] ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.
The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatratham, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatratham passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the ‘Complete Works’ and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. These men signed passages within the text, which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the single cells.
After hearing this fantastic tale, I was determined to write a play based on interviews, with as many of the former political prisoners I could find, intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory. Currently, I am honing the script, conducting further interviews and trying to gauge interests in theatres in the United Kingdom, United States and in South Africa to further develop this project.
It has been an honour to be associated with this South African treasure. As an artist and social activist, I have met people who have humbled me with their stories. Working on this play for so long, I am pleased to see that the names of these most gentle of men are finally getting known by the public. It is incredibly important for the play that the names of Kathrada, Cooper, Cholo, Daniels and many others are as well know to the wider world as Mandela & Sisulu already are known. There are thousands of heroes, both men & women, of the Struggle who are unsung. This is a shame and something, in my very small way, I want to change.
Alongside the play, I am also developing workshops around the themes of Social Responsibility, Citizenship & Leadership. I am basing these workshops around the chosen Shakespearian texts [‘Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more...’ / ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once...’ amongst many others] and the interviews of these men. Of the many fascinating aspects of the project, one that I have found most enlightening is the choices of quotes. As an artist, when reading the chosen texts, I have to disassociate my knowledge of the play and read the choices through the prism of Apartheid South Africa. This has shown a new light on the works of Shakespeare and how the plays were interpreted then and today.
In an interview, actor John Kani tells a heart-rending story of one of the political prisoners, Wilton Mkwayi, who went into prison just before he married his fiancé: ‘He waited for over twenty-three years on Robben Island to finally to stand in front of the pastor to be married after he is released, so they are perpetually engaged for over twenty three years. They did visit once a month, once every three months, but a visit onto Robben Island was so irregular. They were not meant to make the prisoner comfortable. Sometimes the boat would arrive with the men’s wives with the men ready to meet them; and the boat turns back. Men would come, take a look at their wives and march back to their cells without talking.’
Wilton Mkwayi chose Malvolio from Twelth Night:
‘If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy Fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them; and to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough, and appear fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity. She thus advises thee that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell. She that would alter services with thee. THE FORTUNATE-UNHAPPY.’
This choice, taken out of context of the play & placed in context of a Liberation activist who spent over twenty years on Robben Island, reveals another aspect of the play that has never been tapped.
To date, there have been three readings to mark the various stages of the research & development of the play: the first, in 2008 at the Robben Island Museum; the second, in 2009, at the Richmond Theatre in London which featured John Kani, his son and one other actor from the Baxter Theatre Company’s The Tempest; and the latest, in July 2012, at the Southbank Centre as a part of their ‘Africa Utopia’ season.