The Robben Island Shakespeare

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2016-10-06
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

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The Robben Island Shakespeare is a verbatim play derived from South African Sonny Venkatrathnam's copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and interviews with former political prisoners held on this island prison during the Apartheid years.

In 2008 and 2010, theatre scholar and practitioner Matthew Hahn conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa - detainees from the ANC, the PAC and Black Consciousness. During the Apartheid years, a Complete Works of Shakespeare was smuggled around the prison on Robben Island. The book's significance resides in the fact that the book's owner, Sonny Venkatratham, passed it to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells, including Nelson Mandela, asking them to mark their favourite passages with a signature and date.

As a result of the circulation of this secret publication, informally known as "the Robben Island Bible", numerous prisoners - including Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj - selected the speeches that meant the most to them and their experience as political prisoners.

Offering a vivid and startling account of the experience of these political prisoners during Apartheid, as they coped with the grim day-to-day existence in the prison, this extraordinary play weaves Shakespeare's words together with the verbatim accounts from these men.

The play script is published alongside a preface by Sonny Venkatrathnam and an introduction by South African actor, director and playwright John Kani, which offers an overview of the Apartheid years. It also contains some of the passages of Shakespeare selected by each of the prisoners and their short biography; production notes, which outline performance modes and styles; and a photograph of the book's cover that was cobbled together to conceal the Complete Works's identity from prison staff.

It is published in 2016 to mark 400 years since the birth of Shakespeare.

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