Monday, 3 June 2013

Week Six, Part Two - The Robben Island Bible at the Folger Shakespeare Library

3rd June 2012 - The Robben Island Bible, Folger Shakespeare Library

The 'Robben Island Bible' refers to a book containing the complete works of Shakespeare that was one of the few non-religious books the inmates of Robben Island were allowed to keep during their incarceration for ‘political crimes’ against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The book was kept by Sonny Venkatratham, a prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978, and we heard how different Shakespearean stories and characters laid out the human condition and gave eloquent expression to the thought of the prisoners. This performance at the Folger was a staged reading containing extracts from the memoirs of the prisoners, particularly powerful extracts from Shakespeare and, less successfully towards the end, a contemporary and ideologically partisan critique of those prisoners who went from Marxists in the 1970s to capitalists in the 1990s. The problem with that criticism, apart from the obvious point that a communist post-apartheid economic policy would have made South Africa’s people poorer not richer, was the inability to make any allowance for the possibility that the prisoners may have changed their minds about the feasibility of communism based on reason (which seems especially likely bearing in mind the events of Eastern Europe and the USSR during that period): to the author of the play, the only possible reason for them to give up their communism was that they were corrupted by power and wanted to get rich once they took over. Apart from 
this unfair note of bitterness, much of the rest of the performance was fascinating.

Back in 1978, Venkatratham had decided that he wanted a souvenir of Robben Island upon his release, and so he passed around his The Complete Works of William Shakespeare to the other prisoners and asked each of them to write their name next to a section they found particularly meaningful. As we would expect, most of the readings came from tragedies rather than comedies, and the political plays like King Lear and Julius Caesar were well represented. A number of prisoners chose sections of Hamlet, which makes a great deal of sense: a central aspect of that play is the issue of whether to accept an injustice or to undertake a bloody and violent revenge. Hamlet eventually chose the bloody option, but to their eternal credit the Robben Island prisoners chose a more difficult path of forgiveness. Interestingly, the one extract from a comedy turned out to be Malvolio’s ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’. As I mentioned in my last post, that’s a popular modern sentiment, but in Malvolio’s mouth it was a sentiment to be mocked.

The really interesting thing for me was the number of extracts by anti-heroes or villains. Lady Macbeth’s inability to wash away the blood stain was likened to the moral stain of apartheid, but the really fascinating villain lines were those in which the prisoners identified with the villains. To express an affinity with Shylock’s complaints about Antonio’s racism was unsurprising, and in a similar vein one of the prisoners compared Caliban’s complaints about Prospero’s takeover of the island with the white regime’s domination and abuse of South Africa. But one prisoner chose lines spoken by Polonius, the character Hamlet accurately describes as a 'tedious old fool.' Another chose Macbeth’s lines about the meaninglessness of life (‘Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’). As a reminder of the regime's inhuman treatment of those prisoners, this quote more profoundly expressed the dehumanizing nature of their incarceration than the more direct descriptions of their ill-treatment.

Interspersed with the choices was the occasional snippet of information about the subsequent fate of the prisoners, such as Mobbs Ggirana. Mobbs' friends thought he had emigrated from South Africa upon his release. It was only much later discovered that the police intercepted him at the border, killed him, and buried him in an unmarked grave.

The choice we all really wanted to hear was, unsurprisingly, saved until last. Nelson Mandela’s choice was a fitting call to courage. Mandela chose Caesar’s lines from Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths                
The valiant never taste of death but once.’

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