Oppressed, Theatre of the


The Robben Island Shakespeare

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

During the Apartheid years in South Africa, 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 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. 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, playwright and scholar Matthew Hahn conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa. Offering a vivid and startling account of the experience of these political prisoners during Apartheid, this extraordinary verbatim play weaves 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, consequences and whether or not it was all worth it.

The play is published alongside a preface by Sonny Venkatrathnam and an introduction by South African actor, director , playwright and cultural activist John Kani.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Stone is a one act parable of oppression, a politically-charged journey through a spare and allegorical landscape. It tells the story of a man who sets out into the world with seven coins saved up for him by his parents. The man meets a stonemason who robs him, returns the money, and gives him a stone to carry and promises to pay him if he carries it to the stonemason’s house. As the man walks he meets a tramp, a dancing girl, a policeman and a judge, and the stone gets bigger and heavier all the time. Sewn into forceful images and angular poetry, Stone is a simple but fervent discussion of injustice and freedom.

Stone was first presented in 1976 at the ICA, London.

In 1979 Pluto Press published the first English edition of Brazilian Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. On the back cover George Wellwarth described the book as: 'So remarkable, so original and so ground-breaking that I have no hesitation in describing the book as the most important theoretical work on the theatre in modern times.' Wellwarth's comments were prescient: Theatre of the Oppressed was to profoundly affect radical theatre practices across the globe, but especially in Western Europe and the USA.

Director of the mainstream Arena Theatre in Sao Paulo in the late fifties and early sixties, Boal was a member of Brazil's left wing intelligentsia, which included the educationalist, Paulo Freire. In 1964 when the military deposed President Joao Goulart (1961–64), Boal was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and exiled. After a period in Argentina, he made his way to Peru, where Freire was in charge of the government's Integral Literacy Operation (Operacio Alfabetizacion or ALFIN). In his seminal works Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Cultural Action for Freedom, Freire described Latin America as a system of dependent, closed societies, hierarchical, oppressive and brutal. They were defined by an existential passivity, expressed in silences, both objective (political/structural), and subjective (ideological). In such contexts education had to be 'education for freedom', a liberation pedagogy, whose curricula would be founded on the political, cultural and social experiences of the learners. Teaching methods would be defined by mutuality, by a dynamic, dialogic and radical co-authorship of knowledge. Deeply influenced by Friere's analysis, Boal undertook what he would call: 'various experiments . . . in considering the theatre as a language, capable of being utilised by any person, with or without artistic talent.' The outcome of these experiments he termed the 'poetics of the oppressed', and he set out its methodology in Theatre of the Oppressed (1973). He named this new model Forum Theatre. He described its basic structure as follows:

"First, the participants are asked to tell a story containing a political or social problem of difficult solution. Then a ten or fifteen minute sketch portraying that problem and the solution intended for discussion is improvised or rehearsed, and subsequently presented. When the sketch is over, the participants are asked if they agree with the solution presented. At least some will say no. At this point it is explained that the scene will be performed once more . . . but now any participant in the audience has the right to replace any actor and lead the action in the direction she/he feels is right."

Boal's experiments were located within a sweeping and deliberately simplistic critique of classic western theatre, which, he argued, had been appropriated from its roots in communal song by successive power blocs. Classic Greek Theatre, late Medieval Drama, Shakespeare and the Renaissance dramatists, Ibsen and the Naturalists – all had been used as tools of ideological and social control. In Boal's teleology Forum Theatre closed the historical circle: theatre is returned to the people, but now as a form of critical praxis, the 'poetics of the oppressed'. Forum Theatre moved us beyond Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre, Boal argued, by replacing the critical spectator with the 'Spect-actor', who will seek to complete a rehearsed praxis through action in the real world.

Boal's was a syncretic genius; his methods a bricolage of shameless borrowings and adaptations as well as of powerfully original experimentation, and over the following twenty years he would add to this basic methodology. These additions signalled changes in the contexts of his work, and were testimony to the principle that changing socio-political conditions bring changes in theatre methods. Following his move to France in 1974 he published The Rainbow of Desire (1995) which elaborated a more therapeutic model, based on Boal's response to what he saw in the West as a crisis of alienation, rather than of material oppression (though the poor of the slums and ghettoes of Europe's globalised cities might have begged to differ). Legislative Theatre (1998) described his work after he became a councillor for his home city of Sao Paulo, 1993–96. Here Forum Theatre became a means for the people to enact and test new statutes, which Boal took to the legislative council for debate. In all cases, the fundamental principle remained: theatre was to be a rehearsal for change, and a model of radical praxis.

Boal's methods, forged in a specific prerevolutionary moment, were indeed a liberatory tool. In the struggles of the South they maintain their revolutionary and radical character. Transferred to the West, and detached from a political platform or viable movement, they have been absorbed, not unproblematically, into a wide range of communal, social and applied theatre contexts – for example, theatre in prisons, theatre in health, theatre in community action, theatre in education, theatre and asylum, and into work around social justice, social inclusivity, cultural democracy, human rights, multiculturalism, pluralism and so on. His impact has been profound, and is ongoing.

He stands alongside Constantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski as one of the great practical visionaries of twentieth century theatre.

by Dr Bill McDonnell, University of Sheffield