Strathmore Takes On Chekhov

(A version of this critique appeared in the East African 14th -20th June 2010)

left to right: Syombua Nzioki, Nickson Walubengo and Benjamin Kamicha

THE relative success of their production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector last year, seems to have spurred the Strathmore University Drama Society to take the bold step of staging a play by Anton Chekhov.

The adaptation of Ivanov, Chekhov’s first full-length play, which showed at Alliance Française from the 23rd-25th of April had parts of the text edited with characters bearing local, or locally-sounding names.

Ivanov (Benjamin Kamicha) is a man struggling with inner conflict. He has lost his zest for life and love for his wife Anna (Syombua Nzioki), who is terminally ill. To add to his troubles, he has to contend with the annoyingly honest and self-righteous Dr Kaya (Moses Mwangi). Dr Kaya is constantly lecturing everyone on morality and reprimanding Ivanov for spending too much time with Paul Laban (Evans Wanyama) and Paul’s wife Zawadi (Nancy Mutheu), instead of staying with his ailing wife.

Everybody is gossiping about Ivanov, saying that he married Anna so that he could get part of her parents’ wealth and that he lost interest in her when her parents disowned her for marrying someone from a different faith .

Meanwhile, Ivanov continues to endure his inner turmoil and Anna eventually dies. Ivanov then plans to marry Sasha (Nelly Movine), Laban’s 20 year-old daughter, who has been in love with him throughout the play. However, on the day of the wedding, Dr Kaya asserts that Ivanov is marrying Sasha for her money and although all the other characters rush to Ivanov’s defence, he shoots himself and the play ends.

In typical Chekhov style, despite the tragic aspect of the play, it is peppered with comic characters like Michael Bora (Nickson Walubengo) and idle youngsters, one of whom is the modern, trouser-sagging layabout, played by Batso Sadiq.

The cast members had varying degrees of talent and Wanyama stole the show, being the most natural, with good voice control and projection and clear speech. Mutheu and Movine fitted perfectly into their roles though Movine’s enunciation was sometimes not very clear. Sheila Mukami, was convincing as the rich, young widow, Martha Bakina and Mwangi’s knitted brow suited the fuming and furious doctor. However, Nzioki’s performance lacked depth of character.

Kamicha had charisma but fell short of his brilliant performance last year, in his role as Ivan in Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Like most of Chekhov’s characters, Ivanov is a difficult role to play.

In fact, the success of Chekhov’s plays can be attributed largely to the work of his fellow Russian, actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, who used Chekhov’s plays to develop his ‘method’ of acting. ‘The method’ as it has come to be called, involves expressing, not only the external attributes of a character but also- and especially- the inner attributes.

This involves detailed preparation in which an actor or actress draws from his or her own experience, to express the spiritual and psychological state of the character using what Stanislavski called ‘emotion memory.’

So, let us imagine for instance, that I were an actress preparing to play Nora’s famous monologue in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. This is the scene where she finally speaks her mind to her husband Torvald and tells him that she is tired of being a ‘doll wife’ playing in his ‘doll house’: But I am not content anymore with what most people say, or with what it says in the books. I have to think things out for myself, and get things clear.

To do this, I would recall a time when I felt determined to start doing things my way, irrespective of what people may think. Then I would bring this determination to the fore-front of my conscience and breathe it into the character of Nora.

Method acting formed the bed-rock of realistic acting which is the most common type of acting today, especially in film and television. However, realism in theatre precedes Stanislavski although what is understood to be ‘realistic’ will vary from one era to another. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the hero advises the players to “suit action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you overstep not the modesty of nature”.

Let us then consider Hamlet’s words in act III:  To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing them? An actor will convey Hamlet’s emotions by use of his expressive abilities- gestures, facial expression, enunciation and by varying the rhythm of the text.

Compare this to Ivanov’s monologue in act III: First I went to school, then to the university, then came the cares of this estate, all my plans – I did not believe what others did; did not marry as others did; I worked passionately, risked everything; no one else, as you know, threw their money away to right and left as I did.

How does an actor playing Ivanov ‘suit action to the word, the word to the action’ in a text like this? The answer seemed to elude Kamicha- and classically trained actors of Chekhov’s times.  According to Stanislavski, the actor’s job is “not to present merely the external life of the character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person and pour into it all of his own soul.”

Implicitly, a certain amount of maturity is needed in order to achieve this “sincerity of emotions”. I reckon Kamicha would need to add another decade or so to his years if he is to play Ivanov successfully and bring to life the words in Ivanov’s monologue: We are all heroes at twenty, ready to attack anything, to do everything, and at thirty are worn-out, useless men.

It is nonetheless gratifying to see young people taking such risks, in the pursuit of good theatre and I am certainly looking forward to their next production.

©Anne W. Manyara 2010

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Ahai Luvai says:

    Good knowledge!

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