St Mary’s University, Twickenham Senior Lecturer in Drama Matthew Hahn launched his play The Robben Island Shakespeare, published by Bloomsbury Methuen, in spectacular style at the South African High Commission this week. Guests included colleagues from the University’s School of Arts and Humanities.
Welcomed by the High Commissioner of South Africa to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Oled Mlaba, the oversubscribed event featured readings from the play, a keynote address from QC and broadcaster Sir Nicholas Stadlen and a solo performance by Royal Opera House baritone Njabulo Madala.
The play tells the moving story of the Rivonia Trialists and other political prisoners incarcerated on Robben Island during apartheid and how they found inspiration and resilience by sharing passages of text from a battered copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, smuggled onto the Island by prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam and disguised as a Hindu prayer book to keep it from the censorious clutches of the warders. Each inmate signed and dated their favourite passage.
Deputy Head of the School of Arts and Humanities at St Mary’s, Mark Griffin, commented, “The play has had a long journey to publication with initial readings and workshops carried out by Drama St Mary’s staff and students in the University’s Drama theatre and a special performance at Richmond Theatre.
“St Mary’s is delighted to have supported the development of this work from its initial idea through to its publication.”
The play fuses these Shakespearian extracts with the interviews he’s conducted over the last ten years, with the surviving signatories to a produce a fascinating insight into the philosophies and strategies employed by the men many of whom would go onto to become the fathers of the new multi-racial politics in post-apartheid South Africa. The reading was given particular poignancy by the sad news that one of the interviewees Ahmed Kathrada had passed away earlier the same day.
The play has gone on to have further rehearsed performances in The States, South Africa and the UK, including a performance at London’s South Bank Centre as part of the Africa Utopia season.
Matthew Hahn is a Senior Lecturer in Drama at St. Mary's and contributes to the rich and diverse portfolio of research and study within the University’s School of Arts and Humanities, where his main area of research is in Theatre for Development.
He has worked as a theatre director and workshop leader in the United States, Africa and the United Kingdom. He also works with Theatre for a Change, a UK charity which trains teachers and youth workers in Ghana and Malawi.