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