Strathmore On the Wilde Side

(This review appeared in The East African October 11-17 2010)

Sheila Mukami and Nick Walubengo Photo Courtesy of Strathmore University Drama Society

Russian director Vesvold Meyerhold described himself as the ‘author of the spectacle’, which is fitting because, while the playwright uses words to communicate his ideas, the director uses stage action.

His job is to identify what Stanislavski called the spine of the play and then communicate this interpretation to the rest of the production team, who in turn, under his guidance, communicate these ideas using scenic elements within the theatrical space and time.

However, this was not the only task that director Nick Muthama had to tackle in the Strathmore University Drama Society’s production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which I watched at Alliance Française on September 10. He was also faced with the challenge of adapting the play into a Nairobian context and this requires much more than merely Africanising the dramatis personae.

What makes adaptations difficult is the fact that certain aspects of a society’s peculiarities cannot be ‘copy and pasted’ into another society. For instance, the mannerisms of the British upper class are not the same as those of the French upper class, so that translation from one language into the other may result in an unconvincing reality.

Geoffrey Omundi and Nickson Walubengo Photo by Strathmore University Drama Society

Muthama’s task of shifting the play from a Victorian English context into a modern Nairobi middle class context must have been daunting. By and large however, it did come off, save for little discrepancies like the fact that Nairobi does not have a ‘season’, which was a time of the year when the upper class society in London would hold parties and other social events.

Any success the play may have achieved by way of adaptation I would attribute to the costume, which was chosen with precision and finesse and which reflected an accurate understanding of the general style of the play and portrayed the psychology of the characters.

The cast was of mixed ability with Maureen Koech and Ezekiel Mackenzie who played Miss Mabel and Honourable Kasha respectively, being natural and fitting well into their roles. Sheila Mukami, who played Madam Gertrude, gave a sterling performance.

Sylvia Mati, Sheila Mukami and Nzilani Kaunda Photo Courtesy of Strathmore University Drama Society

However, Nzilani Kaunda, did not deliver a three-dimensional Mrs Manda.  This role would have probably been better played by the more talented Sylvia Mati, who played the minor role of Madam Makali. I appreciate that Kaunda may have been given this role so that Mrs Manda and Madam Getrude, be roughly the same age, as they were classmates, but sometimes typecasting may cost the production the creativity of a better suited actor or actress, especially for a lead character.

The cast all the same gave a lively performance and even though this was well-paced till the end, it would have done with an interlude.

The stage movements were not well choreographed. There was a scene where Madam Makali was seated and had to turn her head awkwardly to speak to Robert Lutala (Nickson Walubengo) standing behind the seat and in another scene, there were flowers on the coffee table upstaging Gori (Geoffrey Omundi).

A conversation in a play, even in realistic theatre is not everyday, banal conversation. It is sifted, so that every word has weight, every sentence moves the plot and every conversation generates action.

In the same way, the movements of the actors are not the ordinary movements of everyday life, even in realistic theatre- the director uses the subtle art of blocking to create a stage picture that communicates his ideas.

An actor saying a line while standing still will have a completely different effect from a case where the same actor says the same line while walking towards another actor.

And while a film director uses close-up shots to focus on a particular actor, or to give a particular actor more prominence over the other actors, the theatre director will have one actor standing while the rest are seated, for example, or one lying down while the rest stand, to focus on a particular character.

In this production, Muthama would have made better use of the set, like having a character speaking from the top of the staircase, while the rest look up to him, which would have amplified the action and given important characters more distinction.

Having said that, I am of the opinion that the members of the Strathmore Drama Society have shown admirable maturity in their openness to criticism, which is reflected in the noticeable improvement in the quality of every production they stage.

© Anne Manyara 2010

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    Once again a very good review and it is encouraging to note that Strathmore are also paying attention to constructive criticism!

  2. nick muthama says:

    Talk of critics that build,
    Talk of critiques which yield,
    An all-shielding shield in the art field,
    what would it be,if not for us to heed,
    what would it be,if minds maketh not our a seed
    Then dwarfs we become in art,
    creativity imperfections becomes a fact,
    Art turns to an act,
    Of struggling creation to enact,

    To Ann and all other focused theater critics,

    We bow and say wow
    This is the seed you sow.
    And for sure your comments will ensure another show.
    Thank you
    Nick Muthama
    Director strathmore drama society.

    1. Anne Manyara says:

      Thanks Nick!

  3. Sebirine says:

    Dear Theatre critic

    Have you considered directing a play in Nairobi, I think you should take a stab at it.

    1. Anne Manyara says:

      Thanks Sebirine. I will think about it. 🙂

      1. Sebirine says:

        Having said that though, I think you are doing a great job as a theatre critic. We would like to see the standards of theatre improve in our country and it’s only through what you do that the bar can be raised.

  4. Anne Manyara says:

    Thanks Sebirine. If you, as the audience, are more demanding about what you whatch, that will certainly raise the bar.

  5. Geoffrey Omundi says:

    Thanks Anne.As upcoming artists we really appreciate your critique as it will help us grow into better artists tomorrow,if not the best.

    1. Anne Manyara says:

      Thanks Geoffrey. The pleasure is mine.

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