Heartstrings Didn’t Really String It

(This review appeared in the Sunday Nation on 29th March 2009)

part of the Dare Kenyans To Love cast
part of the Dare Kenyans To Love cast

Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), a theatre practitioner of the Symbolism movement and therefore one totally opposed to realism, was of the firm conviction that the ‘true artist of theatre’ is the director.

I admit that the proponents of Realism advanced equally convincing arguments. However, as I watched Dare Kenyans to Love by Dan Ndambuki (Churchill) at the French Cultural Centre on 20th March, I couldn’t help but concur with Craig’s sentiments.

There were two directors, Victor Ber and Samwel Mwangi, and I wondered if this was the reason why the play lacked coherence. It touched on many varied issues, which made it a sort of rollercoaster experience. I would describe it as stand-up comedy and a series of sketches with no apparent link stringing them together.

Craig saw theatre as a total art and sought complete harmony and perfect balance between all aspects of a production-the lighting, the set, the costume, the sound and music, with the use of schematised décor, stylised gestures, and fundamental colours.

With a cast of at least seventeen in this production, detailed blocking and possibly even some choreography would have had a stronger theatrical impact. This would have been in tandem with the role of the mother (Ann Kamau) whose gestures really suited the sketch that made reference to the depletion of Mau forest and the ‘stolen maize.’ Given that the stage was flooded with caricatured characters like the Catholic choir and choirmaster (who I really identified with) the use of masks and more elaborate costume may have given the production the finesse it so lacked.

One of Gordon Craig’s legacies in theatre is use of overhead stage lights. Prior to this, the stage was lit by footlights. In theatre, lighting not only illuminates the stage but also plays an integral role in the general aesthetic thrust of the piece. In the Ber and Mwangi production, the lighting failed even in its basic role. There were times when the actors spoke in the dark. Except when the play expressly suggests something else, (which wasn’t the case here) being in the dark means being off-stage.

But whether a director is of a realist or symbolic disposition, a few basic considerations need to be taken into account. The director should view the stage like a painter views his canvas. Nothing should be on it without any justification.

Larry Asego played the role of what I perceived to be the stand-up comedian. He engaged the audience in conversation through which we understood that he had been ditched (hence the reason he was drunk) and the reason for his being ditched was that women “these days” make difficult demands in the area of romance, while he was more inclined to “mapenzi ya ushago.”

He said his lines in a stagger throughout the performance, which was a bit tedious to watch. Just holding a bottle and the occasional hiccup is enough to let the audience know that someone is drunk.

It was not clear why his face and clothes were covered in chalk dust nor why, at some point, he had a bucket and mop. If the directors were going for an abstract style, then it didn’t come off. Abstract tends to work only in a completely abstract context. The role of the second drunk (Anthony Kinuthia) who did nothing but hobble to and fro was also a mystery and there was also absolutely no need whatsoever, to have a Heartstrings banner across the proscenium arch except if advertising was more important than creativity.

It seems to me that the directors in this production did not take their role seriously. I would like to emphasise that theatre is not merely a form of distraction and entertainment. It is an art and should be treated as such.

© Anne W. Manyara 2009

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. William Mwangi says:

    I have longed to write to you Ann but I have finally managed to. I have gotten in your profile and apparently it does not tell who you are. Titles don’t say anything. I am a fan of local theatre believe you me I am not in the habit of being touched by anything but I had to find out who you are. You have no profile at the Nation so I decided to follow you at this extension. I still don’t know who you are. I respectfully revere people who have opinions like yours about the play but have the face to say what they do so that they can be measured against what comes out them. On the outset I am not being brush, I am just saying that you need to clarify which play it is you watched that elicited such a pointless rap. We watched the play ad the rolls that the presentation gave us was out of this world. I descent with your views totally and if you dont have a history please dont hide behind a name that no one knows. I follow theatre plays in the papers and I know who the writers are as far as their writing history. I am ardent reader so I would know. Are you a teacher, writer etc etc what are you. I am so curious because you cannot possibly have watched same play that that group did. That write up was a mess on your part. I saw the determine group which even though they did something wrongly, they dserve to learn something out the criticism. but there was nothing. The editors should not let people hide behind unscrupulous writing. I am not saying you are, but Ann you could be. I deserve a response. I challenge you.

    1. Anne Manyara says:

      Thank you William for your heartfelt comment. It seems to me that you are more concerned about who I am than about the content of my review. So, to put you at ease, I am a theatre critic.

  2. sebirine says:

    I like the new format your blog has taken. So kudos for that. Now on to weightier matters. I watched the heartstrings play and I agree with you on a number of issues.

    1. I was expecting a coherent play with a plot and a conclusive end but this was not the case. Having said that, perhaps the little sketches as you call them was what they were intended to be. Perhaps the directors should have put some sort of division (for the lack of a word) so that the audience could know that one sketch has ended and another one has begun. It wasn’t until towards the end of the play that I realised that this were sketches. Perhaps there were other people who were clueless like me?

    2. I don’t pretend to be a theatre connoisseur but from the little I have gleaned in the past, one is not supposed to have more than one thing going on in the stage. There were a lot of concurrent things going on. One notable one was when the wazees were negotiating dowry. The women in one corner were arguing, the men negotiating and the teenagers doing their thing in another corner. I wished that each of these could have been played out differently; the women were doing something hilarious, the wazees were unleashing some superior proverbs and the teenagers were..well, doing what teenagers do. There was one “shags modo” teenager who was eating a banana while covering her face in her blouse and I found this totally hilarious. I was so engrossed in what she was doing, that I did not get a chance to hear what the wazees or the mamas said. If say, the teeangers “froze” while the wazees spoke or the mamas froze as the teenagers did their thing, the audience would have appreciated each act for what it was.

    3. Larry Asego was not funny AT ALL and his repetition of “because of why” honestly…what was that all about. We glean that he had a “fly mama” so one would assume that to attract such a woman one has to have had a modicum of intelligence, and better yet, a good command of English! Speaking in broken English does not connote drunkenness, like you rightly said, a hiccup or two would have sufficed. However, I like that he was able to interact with the audience and that breathed some life into the play.

    4. Why was Peter Marangi hobbling all over the place?

    5. All in all, I liked the issues that the writer (Dan Ndamuki) raised in the play. They made us look hard at ourselves as Kenyans and the matters raised were a true representation of our Kenyaness. However, the delivery of the play was a bit disappointing (and juvenile-if you will permit)…Having said that, I still look forward to the next play staged by Heartstrings and hope more will be put in its delivery.

    Sebirine.

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