From Russia But Fits Like a Glove

Benjamin Kamicha as Ivan Banda

(A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Nation on 26th April 2009)

Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General (also known as The Government Inspector or Revisor) closed at the French Cultural Centre on 19th April 2009, 173 years to the day, since it was first staged in Russia.

The translator, Thomas Seltzer, says in the introduction to the play: “In England, it takes nearly all that is implied in the comprehensive name of Shakespeare to give the same sense of bigness that a Russian gets from the mention of the Revisor.”

But the play is not only upheld as the greatest play in Russia but also one of the finest works in the history of literature.

In a letter to Pushkin, a great Russian poet, Gogol wrote, “Do me a favour; send me some subject, comical or not, but an authentically Russian anecdote. My hand is itching to write a comedy…Give me a subject and I’ll knock off a comedy in five acts- I promise, funnier than hell.”

Pushkin replied with an anecdote about how he was once mistaken for a government inspector.

The play is set in the Russia of the tsars, but it fits Kenyan society like a glove, the most obvious reason being the corruption and the impunity of the government officers. “But the Lord knows that if I’ve taken from some I’ve done it without a trace of ill-feeling.”

But this is not all; the hypocrisyof the society is rather familiar. The corrupt mayor confidently declares, “I at least am a firm believer and go to church every Sunday.” And we can identify with the alcoholic society: “As for your assessor, he is an educated man, to be sure, but he reeks of spirits, as if he had just emerged from a distillery.”

I think it would be completely in order to have a published Kenyan adaptation of this play. I watched the Strathmore University Drama Society’s production on Saturday 18th and I must say that they made a good effort towards this.

For a start, the characters’ names were changed (possibly out of necessity more than anything else). For example Anton Antonovich Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky is Antony Samba (Longi Ouma).

The inspector travelling incognito is from Nairobi and not St. Petersburg and instead of a tsar, there is a president. The play also makes reference to the maize scandal, the post- election violence and the Molo clashes.

However reference to the judge’s hunting crop and greyhound puppies alludes to European nobility and country gentry and has no resonance in our society. Also, tilapia may have been more palatable than salmon.

Having said that, the adaptation managed to capture Gogol’s humour for the most part, in a manner that was authentically Kenyan.

Ivan Banda (Benjamin Kamicha) is the self-deceptive Nairobian who travels to his upcountry home, dead broke, but still manages to dazzle the rural folk with his smart dress and big talk. “I am on an intimate footing with Chinua Achebe,” he boasts. “I often say to him ‘Achebe, old boy, how goes it?’ ‘So-so partner’ he’d reply.”

And if that is not outrageous enough he also declares, “All that has appeared under the name of Oyunga Pala was written by me.”

The mise-en-scene however was not altogether impressive. Though it was an amateur production, one would expect a little more effort from university students. For the costume, it looked like the actors were told to bring with them whatever they could find. The mayor wore an academic gown and the mayor’s chain was cut out from manila paper and bits of shiny paper.

Change of acts was done by rearranging furniture and in the second act, there was an armchair that completely hid Ivan Banda when he sat on the dining table, making him speak from behind the furniture like as if he were off stage.

None-the-less, Kamicha’s performance was outstanding. Right from his dramatic entrance in Act II, he maintained terrific stage presence. His voice projection, diction and poise were of the standards of an accomplished actor. Bravo!

Evans Nanyama was Counsellor Galo. For an actor with so much promise, it was a pity he played such a minor role.

© Anne W. Manyara 2009


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