The Robben Island Shakespeare

Shakespeare ZA is delighted to welcome guest blogger MATTHEW HAHN. Matthew has some exciting news about his play, The Robben Island Shakespeare, and related projects ...



In the 1970s, as South Africans suffered under and attempted to resist apartheid legislation, a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was smuggled around the prison on Robben Island. The book's significance resides in the fact that its 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. The book became informally known as "The Robben Island Bible". Numerous prisoners selected the speeches that meant the most to them and their experience as political prisoners.  
In 2008 and 2010, I conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa who were on Robben Island and signed Sonny’s "Bible". I wrote a verbatim play, weaving Shakespeare's words together with first-hand accounts from these men. They offer their reflections on their time as liberation activists and, twenty years later, on the costs and consequences - on whether or not it was all worth it. The result is a vivid and startling picture of the experiences of these political prisoners.  
For more information about the play and the accompanying Ethical Leadership Workshops, please visit The Robben Island Shakespeare website
The play has now been published by Methuen Drama, an inprint of Bloomsbury. Here is an extract from John Kani’s Foreword to the book: 

"Matthew Hahn has reignited the debate about the importance of something that is missing today in my country, intellectual discourse amongst the academics, politicians and leaders. There is a conspiracy of silence that has blanketed all of us for fear of being marginalised by those who may disagree with us. Free speech is being threatened by the fear of being labelled as counter revolutionary. Looking at what is happening today in my country, sometimes I wonder what would these men and women who spent nearly their entire lives in exile, in prisons around South Africa and on Robben Island, think about what we are doing to our country today. We have become the biggest opposition to our own newly found democracy. Corruption at the highest level of Government is the order of the day. In just over two decades we have lost the moral high ground that we proudly occupied in the world. We are now being referred to as the most corrupt government in Africa, the crime capital of the world, a country ravaged by HIV and AIDS while we have the resources and capacity to do something about it, the most unstable economy in Africa. We have forgotten what we promised our people in 1955 when we founded the Freedom Charter which is the foundation of our Constitutional Democracy ...  Matthew Hahn’s The Robben Island Shakespeare is indeed a manual for both the young and old in South Africa and the world, to help us charter the difficult journey of life and the survival of the human spirit, Ubuntu, against all odds."   

The Robben Island Shakespeare will be launched on the 28th of March 2017 at 6pm at South Africa House in London. If you are in London and would like to attend the launch, please RSVP to Pumela Salela (Country Head: UK Brand South Africa).  Places are limited so please make sure to reserve in advance.