(A version of this review appeared in the East African September 20-26 2010 under the title A Rich Serving of Classic Comedy)
Financial considerations are obviously the major influencing factor determining a theatre company’s choice of play and Phoenix players got it right with Plautus’ I Menaechmi, if the popularity of bedroom farce in Nairobi is anything to go by.
However, despite the fact that many scholars have found Plautine comedy having “a great deficiency in that elegance and chastity of taste” its intricate plot devices, like mistaken identity, has earned him a place amongst classic dramatists and has greatly influenced Shakespeare and Molière, two icons of classic English and French drama, respectively.
In fact, Plautus epitaph read: postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget– since Plautus is dead, Comedy mourns.
I Menaechmi or The Menaechmus brothers is the most famous of Plautus’ plays because it has the earliest English translation. Like in all his plays, the scene is set in Athens. However, the Phoenix production, which I watched on September 5 2010 was a Kenyan adaptation, set in Mombasa.
The Menaechmus brothers are twins from Dar es Salaam, who were separated at the age of seven while one of them, Menaechmus (Likarion Wainaina), was on a trip to Zanzibar with his father. He was then adopted by a trader from Mombasa. The other, Sosicles (Sam Psenjen) later travels to Mombasa with his loyal servant Messenio (Martin Kigondu) to look for his brother. On arrival, he is mistaken for his twin brother thus complicating the plot in which the said brother is juggling his luck between his wife (Pauline Komu) and his mistress Erotium (Karimi Njagi).
The English text is juxtaposed with Swahili, and this not only gives it a Kenyan feel, but also heightens the humour.
When the Romans conquered the Greeks, in recognition and appreciation of the richness of Greek culture, they adapted Greek plays into Latin, just as they ‘took’ Greek gods and gave them Roman names.
The comedies of Plautus were based on Greek plays of the New Comedy era which was concerned with the goings-on of the middle class and which presented stock (stereotypical) characters like “the foundling”, in this case Menaechmus and “the adventurer”, Sosicles.
Komu gave “the domineering wife” a new dimension, speaking fluent coast-style-complete-with-attitude Swahili in one moment and changing to articulate English in the next. It was interesting to see how in the English text, she came off as a vulnerable victim of circumstances, sobbing and saying “I am so miserable” while the Swahili text brought out a refreshing “don’t-mess-with-me” trait.
Harry Ebale played “The tottering father-in-law”. Apart from Messenio, the other “loyal slave” was Cylindrus who was well played by Fridah Mumbi but “the quack doctor” (Anthony Kaloki) was a bit over done.
Perhaps the most comical stock characters- at least in this play- is “the parasite” Sponge, played by Tash Mitambo. This character is always obsessed with food and the whereabouts of his next meal. Mitambo stole the show with his brilliant performance, managing to seamlessly flow from one language into the next, speaking in such a heavy accent, that when he spoke English, it sounded like Swahili.
Brander Matthews, the first U.S. professor of dramatic literature explains that “the audience which the Latin dramatist had to try to please was the roughest and most stubborn of any known to the history of the theatre” and that “any delicacy would be wasted on a crowd like this; and no jest could be too gross or too violent to amuse coarse creatures whose chief joy had been in the bloody sports of the arena.”
This production however, was well refined, especially due to its alternation of text between English and Swahili, the latter language, with it’s rich metaphor, making even the crudest subject palatable.
The Roman audience that Plautus was writing for had a basic knowledge of Greek, and in keeping the Greek names of the characters, he intended to preserve the comic effect.
However, the Greek names in this production were misplaced and the reference to Venus and Adonis by characters saying walahi created a disjointed reality.
Altogether, it was a hilarious and light-hearted performance.
Shakespeare drew inspiration from the plays of Plautus at a time when, due to the relative stability of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the economy of England flourished and so did the theatre. Writing at this point in our country’s history, when we look forward to years of stability and prosperity, I would like to think that watching a play by a great dramatist like Plautus, is a sign of good times ahead, for Kenyan theatre.
© Anne Manyara 2010