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Sonny Venkatrathnam (1935– 2019)

We were saddened to hear last Friday of the death of Sonny Venkatrathnam, who passed away in Durban at the age of 84.

Sonny Venkatrathnam at Nash’s House
Sonny Venkatrathnam at Nash’s House

In 2006 Sonny lent the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust what had become known as the Robben Island Shakespeare for display in the Complete Works exhibition at Nash’s House. An anti-apartheid activist, he had been imprisoned on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island during the 1970s with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others. Whilst incarcerated Sonny covered his Complete Works of Shakespeare in old Hindu Diwali greeting cards to disguise it as religious text to avoid it being confiscated. The book was covertly passed around to other prisoners such as Mandela, Maharaj, Raymond Mhlaba, Billy Nair and Govan Mbeki, to read and mark up their favourite passages.

The Robben Island Shakespeare annotated by Nelson Mandela
The Robben Island Shakespeare

Sonny, his wife Theresa and granddaughter Teneille, brought the book to Stratford-upon-Avon themselves and spent a few days with us, taking part in various events and enjoying Shakespeare’s hometown. At the exhibition’s opening Sonny spoke openly about his life, involvement in the fight against apartheid and subsequent imprisonment, and how at his time of need Shakespeare and his work had provided strength, comfort and inspiration. It really was an honour to host this fiercely intelligent, principled and courageous man, his remarkable family and truly humbling to hear their story.

Our thoughts are with Teneille and her family at this sad time.