Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Robben Island Bible in Bozeman, Montana

Milestones of art, democracy
Shakespeare and South Africa collide in ‘The Robben Island Bible’
By Rachel Hergett, Get Out! Editor | Posted3 weeks ago
In the next few weeks, the world will celebrate two very different milestones. April 23 is the 450th anniversary of the birth of one of its most beloved playwrights, Shakespeare. April 27 marks the 20th anniversary of the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa and true democracy in the country.
While seemingly quite different these events are connected through a book, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam’s copy of “The Collected Works of Shakespeare.” That book, disguised as a religious text by Diwali cards, was shared between 33 prisoners onRobben Island in the 1970s, including Walter SisuluGovan Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. Each man marked his favorite passage in the book with his name.
“The Collected Works of Shakespeare,” disguised as a religious text by Diwali cards, was shared between 33 prisoners on Robben Island in the 1970s, including Walter SisuluGovan Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. Each man marked his favorite passage in the book by signing his name next to it.
It’s fitting that these men would choose Shakespeare, said South African native and Montana State University Honors College Dean Ilse-Mari Lee. Shakespeare was able to capture humanity and all its foibles in his work.
“It’s all of us – the good we’re capable of and also the evil,” Lee said.
Lee heard of the book’s existence and reached out to playwright Matthew Hahn, who had created a play, “The Robben Island Bible,” based on the text and interviews with former political prisoners held on this island prison. Lee was fascinated by the idea the book “could move a group of leaders that much they could build a nation on those words,” and asked Hahn if he would consider bringing his production to Montana.
Hahn, a senior lecturer at St. Mary’s University in London and a director and workshop facilitator in the United States, Africa and the United Kingdom, said while he had never been to Montana, he had heard of Shakespeare in the Parks.
“I immediately made that association,” he said in a phone call from London last week.
What he didn’t immediately know is Lee’s connection to South Africa and her immense desire to bring the production to Bozeman this month in celebration of the end of apartheid.
“I am South African,” Lee said. “To me, that resonates on a very personal level.”
“The Robben Island Bible” is Hahn’s first play. He was naturally attracted to the idea because of his love for theater and the association with Shakespeare. It all came together, Hahn explained, as many good ideas do – in a pub.
Though he didn’t know much about Robben Island at the time, Hahn was intrigued by the idea that the island museum is now staffed by both former prisoners and guards. And now, after Mandela’s death, he believes it is even more important to tell the stories of the other men who worked alongside him.
Today, Hahn explained, the constitution of South Africa is second to none in providing equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race, color, creed or sexuality. Yet South Africa’s reality is bleaker. Class divisions have left some of the men who helped create the democracy bitterly disappointed in the state of their country 20 years after that historic election.
“I don’t say this, the men I interviewed say this: ‘I thought I was fighting for much more than what we have today,’” Hahan said.
While the 20th anniversary of democracy is something to celebrate, governing is more difficult.
“Shakespeare had it easy in the sense he was writing fiction,” Hahn said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for what Henry V had at the end of the play.”
Still, Hahn said he is still allowed some artistic license to make connections between the men and the texts by which they signed their names.
Ahmed Kathrada, who would become President Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor, was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 years. He signed his name next to what may be the most famous lines of “Henry V,” “Once more into the breach, dear friends…”
Hahn said he can see Kathrada giving such an impassioned speech, just as he can see why Elias Motsoaledi would choose a quote from Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended…”
“He has a wonderful laughter,” Hahn said. “As a mischief-maker, I can see him as Puck.”
The passages and the play created from them reflect on the men’s situation while imprisoned, as well as hopes for the future.
“A lot deals with the Rainbow Nation, the idea of what South Africa could be, and examines how one could be a better ethical leader,” Hahn said.
“The Robben Island Bible,” which is really a series of interchangeable vignettes, has also been performed at the Southbank Centre and British Museum in London and at theFolger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Later this month, the play will open the conference “1994-2014: 20 Years of South African Democracy” at the University of Oxford.
Bringing “The Robben Island Bible” to Bozeman started with a small grant from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation. The Honors College then grouped resources with the College of Arts and Architecture and Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. 
Four actors from national theater companies will travel to Bozeman for this production.
“We wanted it to be reflective of the prisoners on the island and their wives ethnically,” Lee said.
The Honors College will present a 45-minute version of “The Robben Island Bible” on April 15 and 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the MSU Black Box Theater on the corner of 11th and Grant streets. Each 45-minute performance will be followed by a discussion with the actors and playwright. These performances will be free and open to the public, butseating is limited. To reserve tickets, call 994-4110.
Hahn will also present a lecture on April 16, 3-5 p.m. in Leon Johnson Hall 339.
Rachel Hergett may be reached at or 582-2603.

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