A brilliantly acted revival at The Clare

Melissa York
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The Clare at the Young Vic | Four stars

DUST swirls under bright lights as you enter The Clare Theatre at The Young Vic.

Two men – The Island’s only characters – shovel piles of sand into wheelbarrows, only to walk to the other side of the stage and tip it all out again. This hypnotic dance goes on for several painfully long, dusty minutes. Sweat drips down their faces as they carry out their futile work.

It’s an effective way to set the scene, taking you from drizzle and twinkling city lights into the oppressively hot and repetitive world of John and Winston, prisoners of Robben Island, the South African jail that once held Nelson Mandela. Their story is based on true tales from inmates of its infamous cells.

First performed in the 1970s, The Island has been revived for its 40th birthday by young director Alex Brown. Daniel Poyser plays John, a passionate fantasist who tells stories to entertain his cellmate Winston, played by Jimmy Akingbola. John rails against the injustice doled out to him by the state and he ropes Winston, a jaded lifer, into venting his frustrations by staging Greek tragedy Antigone with him in the prison variety show. Suddenly, John is told that his sentence has been dramatically reduced on appeal and the dynamic of their friendship changes. “You stink of freedom,” Winston bellows. “And it’s driving me mad.”

The script does a convincing job of establishing a hopeless world and a touching friendship while even raising some laughs in just under an hour and a half. The space – tiny and sparse – means the audience is sometimes closer to the action than is entirely comfortable. But the real triumph of this play is down to the performances from Akingbola and Poyser. A small play in all senses of the word but it packs an impressive emotional punch.