Shakespeare and the Robben Island prisoners that inspired a play

On the day that one of the last political prison mates of Nelson Mandela died, a South African play capturing life at the notorious Robben Island was released. 

South Africa’s diverse cultures © South African High Commission, London

Written by Matthew Hahn, the play is based on selected texts from the complete works of William Shakespeare that became an important source of support and inspiration for inmates. The book – ‘The Robben Island Shakespeare’ (formerly known as The Robben Island Bible) was smuggled into the prison by the wife of political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam.

Sonny was one of 33 political prisoners sentenced to life after being convicted of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial. The trial took place in South Africa between 9 October 1963 and 12 June 1964 and resulted in those famous pictures we know showing Mandela and his comrades imprisoned on Robben Island.

Inspiring texts

Apart from a Bible, inmates were forbidden access to reading materials. But Sonny convinced one prison guard to allow him to bring in the Hindu holy book. But there was nothing holy about the book apart from a collection of Diwali postcards that had been used to cover the book. The book was, in actual fact, the complete works of Shakespeare.  The ploy successfully fooled the security guard.

Sonny passed this anthology to fellow inmates including Mandela and asked them to highlight, sign and date their favourite passage and explain why. Their explanations formed the basis of Hahn’s play, which gave some insight into the life and experiences of the imprisoned men.

South African flag

Emotional high

Being a spectator in the crowd of South Africans that had thronged to the country’s High Commission, made me feel like a slight impostor at a family funeral. Emotions were wound tightly not only because fellow inmate Ahmed Kathrada, or Uncle Kathy as he was affectionately known, passed away on the same day as the launch (28 March).

It was also a time to remember the other influential freedom fighters that had already passed on. 2017 also marks the centenary of the birth of former ANC president and South African lawyer Oliver Tambo.

Traditional Zulu songs were sung in anticipation of the high commissioner’s arrival and that feeling of national pride for South Africa was visceral. Ululations rang through the audience to mark the importance of the day. And there were speeches from South African High Commissioner His Excellency Mr. Obed Malaba, John Battersby, Director at South African Chamber of Commerce UK, and an address from one of the surviving members of the legal team that defended the prisoners Lawyer Nicholas Staglin. And Pumela Sulela, head of brand South Africa, was an accomplished MC at keeping the audience entertained that night.

These speeches were interspersed with readings from the play performed by South African actor and writer Jack Klaff and members from the South African Youth Ambassadors (SAYA). The group was formed to ensure that youngsters born in the UK to South African parents would be able to learn, pass on and preserve knowledge of their cultural heritage.

The event gave me an important perspective on a period in history that I had only seen through the TV screens. It was powerful to think that these notable men had derived such a profound source of comfort and inspiration from a book of plays written hundreds of years earlier.

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