I first heard about a copy of the ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when I 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 ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.
The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, 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 Venkatrathnam 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 Leadership Section of Robben Island.
After hearing this fantastic tale, I 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. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.
It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’
I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.
In an interview, Sonny reflected on the choices the men made, ‘The things is, honestly I think,
a lot of the people who chose particular lines in my ‘Bible’ very deliberately would today find it
difficult to identify themselves with that particular line or passage. Most of the thinking people on Robben Island leaned towards the Left ideologically. If you look at the Freedom Charter from 1958 you will see that. But compared to the ANC National policy today, you cannot believe that this is the same organization. So what I am saying is that a lot of people that I thought would never ideologically change have switched horses. Yesterday’s Communists are today’s biggest Capitalists. I find that very difficult to reconcile. I’m not saying that they mustn’t adapt and all of that, but to become so virulently Capitalist, I don’t think that is acceptable. Power corrupts, you see, Shakespeare tried to teach us that But some gave up the struggle o a softer life. I find that very unconscionable.’
This observation ran through several of the interviewees when reflecting on the Struggle. Eddie Daniels stated, ‘We, in the Struggle, fought for what we believed in: idealism, peace, reconciliation, dignity, respect, integrity. These were our values. Not values of self enrichment. Not values of greed. Our values were good. Today, that cannot be said for everybody. Many bad people have cast a shadow on the efforts of those who had died to bring about change in South Africa. That is the difference between then and today.’
Of the many enlightening aspects of the project, the one that most strikes me as an artist are the chosen Shakespearian texts. When reading these 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 Twelfth 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 and 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.
The play, The Robben Island Shakespeare, is based on ‘The Robben Island Bible’ and over ten years of research and development.
© Matthew Hahn 2020