Scene 1. A cell on Robben Island. After the sound of sirens, we see two prisoners, John and Winston, miming digging sand. The playwrights write, "It is an image of back-breaking and grotesquely futile labour." When a whistle is blown, the two prisoners get handcuffed and shackled, before running. Their running is not fast enough and they get beaten. Winston gets hit in the eye and John sprains his ankle, and they both get put back in their cell. John looks at Winston's eye and Winston at his ankle. John urinates in his hand and tries to clean Winston's eye with it, but this upsets Winston.
As Winston begins banging on the cell, John tells him to stop or they will get in even more trouble. "I want Hodoshe," says Winston. John tries to get him to calm down, suggesting that perhaps Hodoshe will let them go to the quarry the following day. Suddenly, Winston falls silent, and touches his ear, which seems to be bleeding. John does the same, and his ear is also bleeding. Winston examines John's ear, and he winces in pain.
As Winston looks at John's ear, John says, "Black Domination was chased by White Domination. Black Domination lost its shoes and collected a few bruises. Black Domination will run barefoot to the quarry tomorrow." The prisoners reminisce about life before getting arrested, then complain about their grueling work as prisoners.
Discussing their task this morning, putting sand from the beach in wheelbarrows, John says, "I laughed at first. Then I wasn't laughing. Then I hated you." To this, Winston replies, "That's what he wanted." After they both express that they hated one another while working, John puts his hand on Winston's shoulder and a stage direction tells us that "their brotherhood is intact."
They look for their washrag, and Winston goes and smokes a cigarette. John produces some rusty nails from his pocket, and gives them to Winston, suggesting he can make a necklace with them for a production that they are going to do of Antigone. When Winston seems dubious, John scolds him that they committed to performing Antigone for a concert that is taking place in six days. John is very motivated to work on the play, but Winston is less excited. They discuss the characters in Antigone, including Antigone herself, a woman with two brothers who has been accused by the State, represented by her uncle Creon, of burying her brother Polynices (who Winston mistakenly calls Eteocles). They discuss the fact that Antigone pleads "Guilty," even though Winston insists that she is not guilty, as she had every right to bury her brother.
John instructs Winston to learn more about the play while he makes the necklace, pulling a pendant made from a jam-tin lid and twine out from his bed. John reminisces about a production of the play he once saw.
The play plunges us into an insular and closed world, an island in more ways than one. The only two characters in the play are John and Winston, two Black political prisoners in the Robben Island prison in South Africa. They are trapped inside a cell, forced to do backbreaking menial labor, and abused by the people who guard them. It is a bleak setting, and one that does not promise to change in the course of the narrative. Just as Winston and John are trapped on Robben Island, in the prison, so too is the audience.
The conditions in the prison are horribly violent from the beginning. After the two prisoners attempt to escape, they each suffer injuries, one in the eye and the other with an ankle sprain. They do not have the resources to heal themselves, and when they try to treat the injuries, it only makes them worse. Then, they both begin bleeding from the ear. These injuries are brutal and completely ignored by the authorities, which represents the ways these men are overlooked in apartheid-era South Africa.
One of the worst elements of their imprisonment is the fact that their subjugation often turns the men against one another, rather than against their white oppressors. As they recount their horrible day working at the beach, John says, "I laughed at first. Then I wasn't laughing. Then I hated you. You looked so stupid, broer!" Winston replies, "That's what he wanted," implying that the whole purpose of their forced labor is not only to demoralize the Black prisoners, but to turn them against one another. Thus we see that imprisonment is dehumanizing not only in its effects on the individual, but on the individual's perception of himself, his closest friends, and other members of his race.
An organizing element of the narrative is the fact that Winston and John are preparing to perform a version of Antigone by Sophocles for their fellow inmates, at a concert in six days. In the midst of their oppression, they are learning the "words and moves" of an ancient play that is about a young woman's struggle against a corrupt and oppressive state. The play within the play itself serves to add layers and new dimensions to the story of Winston and John, suggesting a certain parallel between the plights of the prisoners and the characters in Antigone.
As they discuss the play, Winston keeps getting details of the plot wrong, partially because he cannot abide the injustice that Antigone faces in the play. When John asks him whether Antigone pleads guilty or not guilty for burying her brother, Winston suggests that she pleads not guilty, and when John corrects him, Winston gets upset, because he believes that Antigone is not guilty for the "crimes" she has committed. His anger at the injustice that Antigone faces in the play prevents him from internalizing the details of the play they are learning. This shows us that the theme of individual versus the state that is prominent in Antigone is important as well in the lives of John and Winston, the characters in The Island.