Robben Island Bible Play preview

On April 15 and 17, the MSU Honors College will present the “Robben Island Bible,” a play based off the voices of the Robben Island prisoners of the 1970s.

On June 11, 1964, Nelson Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life in the Robben Island prison for sabotage while fighting against apartheid in South Africa. Soon after, in 1972, Sonny Venkatrathnam was imprisoned on Robben Island. He acquired “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” which he disguised as a Bible and asked his fellow prisoners to sign and date their favorite passages within the text. In 1978 when Venkatrathnam was released, 32 leaders in the fight for a democratic South Africa had signed the book, including six of the seven who had been sentenced to life on the June 11 trials.

Mac Maharaj, a close friend of Mandela and spokesperson in the government of South Africa today, marked this passage from “Richard II’: “Where words are scare, they are seldom spent in vain; for they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.”

Walter Sisulu, one of the  leaders in the movement for democracy, chose to underline Shylock’s famous speech “Hath a Jew not eyes?” from “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare. All the underlined passages and interviews on which the play is based intertwine the hardship leaders who fought to bring democracy to South Africa experienced, as well as Shakespeare’s voice.

This production of this play at MSU marks both 20th anniversary of Mandela’s election as president of South Africa and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

The Honors College received a grant from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation to bring the production to Bozeman.

“Our lives are often marked by occasions which remain indelibly imprinted in our memories. It is our hope that this performance of “The Robben Island Bible” will remain in your memory as a source of inspiration and as a testament to hope: inspired and sustained by the words of William Shakespeare,” explained Dean of the Honors College Ilse-Mari Lee.

Screenwriter and director, Matthew Hahn, wrote the play off interviews with many of the former political prisoners that had stayed on Robben Island along with selected texts from Sonny’s “Bible of shakespeare.” Hahn said that he was most fascinated by “how life imitates art and how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.” While writing the play he visited Africa several times to interview the former and current political leaders, including Venkatrathnam. “It was 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,” Hahn said.

On Wednesday, April 16, Hahn will be giving a lecture on the play from 3 – 5 p.m. in Leon Johnson Hall 339. Hahn is traveling from England to direct the play and actors from national theater companies will travel to Bozeman for this production. Performances of The Robben Island Bible are on Tuesday and Thursday, April 15 and 17 at 7:30 pm in the Black Box Theater on 11th Avenue and Grant Avenue. The performances are free and open to the public. Seating is very limited. To reserve tickets, call 994-4110.