(This review appeared in the East African July 26-August 1 2010)
The curtain came down on the ‘double bill’ of comedies at the Phoenix Theatre on July 10 2010.
The first play was one of Anton Chekhov’s one-act comedies, The Proposal, which the director, George Mungai adapted well into a Kenyan context, setting it in Western province and changing the characters’ names to Kenyan names.
James Wekesa (Andrew Kioo) arrives at the house of Mzee Baraza (Harry Ebale) to ask for Natalia’s (Valentine Kamau) hand in marriage. Mzee Baraza is very pleased but when James goes to pop the question to Natalia, a heated argument brews over the ownership of a parcel of land, which leads to both Natalia and Mzee Baraza insulting James and expelling him from their house.
When Natalia learns that James had come to propose to her, she begs her father to call him back but when he returns, another argument starts between her and James. Exasperated, Mzee Baraza reconciles them and calls for champagne to celebrate their engagement.
Both actors and actress put on a lovely performance, especially Kamau and Ebale, who made an endearing pair, as father and daughter.
Mungai’s adaptation to a Kenyan context heightened Chekhov’s humour in this satire of middle class courtship. The feud between the Wekesas and the Barazas over the Msitu Fields, the argument over the pedigree of their fighting bulls (dogs in the original text) and reference to land grabbing and squatters made the play a good reflection of our society.
If theatre is a mirror of society, then The Proposal gave a good reflection while Light Lunch, the second play, was neither here nor there.
The play by Bridget Derrett, about a couple, Richard (Matayo Mwenesi) and Laura (Valentine Kamau) Cartwright, who have decided to grant each other a divorce as a wedding anniversary present, was an immense anticlimax after Chekhov’s play.
The comic premise in The Proposal stems largely from the characters’ actions being contrary to what is expected in such a situation, like Mzee Baraza’s delight at the news that James intends to propose to his daughter. The use of hyperbole in their actions, including James’ hypochondria, increases the comic effect.
In A Light Lunch the humour is partly due to the irony of the situation in that the couple are getting a divorce on their wedding anniversary, but it is predominantly verbal, though rather- and this is dependent on personal taste- banal. At any rate, it certainly isn’t British humour at its best.
The Proposal addresses issues that are timeless and universal- marriage proposal, feuds over land and rivalry between families- and this is what makes it a classic, while as Light Lunch is not, as it is confined to a very specific culture in a very specific period of time.
In fact, the play is so alien that while in The Proposal the cast presented believable, three-dimensional characters, in Light Lunch they really looked like they were ‘playing the part’. Henry Ebale was the waiter and Andrew Kioo made a brief appearance at the end, as Laura’s toy boy, Ted.
I was therefore hard-pressed to understand what Mungai had in mind when choosing a play whose characters, themes and jokes about such things as ‘maritime sandwiches,’ have no resonance whatsoever within a Nairobi audience, while there is an endless choice of classic comedies, from Jean-Baptiste Molière’s Tartuffe to Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
The issue here is that Derrett’s play lacks any depth, beyond light entertainment for a British audience.
Staging this play in my view was a missed opportunity to exploit the power of theatre, which can, and should, delight and at the same time challenge. British playwright Edward Bond says in his poem On Leaving the Theatre: “Have you been entertained? Laughter that’s not also an idea, is cruel.”
© Anne Manyara 2010