Sunday, 1 July 2012

The South African, Issue 468, 19 June 2012

 Shakespeare’s political and historical works may make schoolchildren the world over go cross-eyed, but the leaders of Africa found in his rhetoric the inspiration to get through the most harrowing moments of their lives, and inspire legends which carry the stories on into artworks of their own.

Thabo Mbeki became enthralled by Shakespeare when he was at Sussex University, and has since quoted him at every opportunity. When Nelson Mandela celebrated his 80th birthday in 1998, just before stepping down as President, Mbeki made a speech speculating about how Madiba would retire to the country, quoting from King Lear:
‘To tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news’
J
ulius Caesar has probably the most impact on Africa. Its original translation into Swahili by the first democratic President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, marked a shift in white-dominated education. The role of the Bard continued to be strongly political in South Africa, resonating with an oppressed people realising their potential against authority.

The story of the ‘Robben Island Bible’ is a fantastic example of the imagined and real histories recreated by Shakespeare taking flight in the minds of the political prisoners of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, alongside similarly segregated prisoners Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Eddie Daniels, Michael Dingake, Kwede Mkalipi, Theo Cholo, and Andrew Mlangeni, would gather together and recite long passages of Shakespeare.  Another prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, kept a copy of The Complete Works disguised as a religious text in his cell. Known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ because of this, he eventually passed it to each of his friends, asking them to sign a passage that meant a lot to them.

Julius Caesar remained the favourite, and Madiba himself chose the lines below, which he signed and dated 16 December 1977. The words exemplify Caesar’s, and his, fearless leadership:

‘Cowards die many times before their deaths
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.’

These moments were immortalised in a play by London-based playwright Matthew Hahn, The Robben Island Bible. When asked why he still thinks Shakespeare is relevant, he referred to the inmates, who he interviewed extensively to write and produce the play. “They were all still quoting Shakespeare,” he said, “And Andrew Mlangeni was saying that it is still relevant after 400 years.”

When asked why, Matthew said, “There is a universal appeal to Shakespeare: the plays can be adapted and performed in a number of different settings.” Themes such as love, betrayal, political competition, leadership and fidelity, “these are themes that never go away” believes Matthew.

Matthew’s play is being staged at the London Literary Festival at London’s Southbank Centre on Tuesday 3 July while the original ’The Robben Island Bible’ can be seen in the exhibit ‘Staging the World’ at the British Museum from 19 July.

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