(This critique appeared in The EastAfrican February 21-27 2011 under the title, All About the Bard and the Bees)
Despite speculation that some works attributed to him may have been written by other people, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is heralded as the greatest writer in the English language.
The great Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis (1839-1908) said “One day, when there is no more Great Britain, when there is no more the United States, when there is no more the English language, will exist Shakespeare.” Thus, when Romeo and Juliet opened at Phoenix Theatre on Friday 4th February 2011, my anticipation was only natural. I was eager to see the director George Mungai’s interpretation of the play and ponder the relevance of Shakespeare in the modern African society.
As I studiously listened out for famous monologues, ready to take note of how they were delivered, I was rather vexed by some members of the audience who made loud comments and sniggered in the scenes that I considered to be “great tragic moments”.
However, it was while reflecting on the performance later that evening that I realised that these people- some of whom, I came to learn, were watching a Shakespeare play for the first time- are the precise gauge of the play’s success given that Shakespeare initially wrote for an audience that had not read his plays beforehand. The original actors did not wear ‘period costume’ but rather, they wore on stage the sort of clothes they would have worn off stage. Shakespeare wrote for the stage and so his plays are best analysed, studied and enjoyed on stage.
For centuries, the study of Shakespeare has been text-based, paying little attention to the actual performance of his works. This has not made easier by the fact that only the text and printed reviews of a play survive the performance.
Yet, if we are to ask ourselves, what is the relevance of Shakespeare in our society, we would need to consider to some extent the interpretation of the text but to a larger extent, the visual aspects of the play and how the audience perceives them and the meaning they derive from them, and therein lies the answer.
Mungai may have assumed that his audience is familiar with Shakespeare, going by his exclusion of the prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” which explains to an unacquainted audience, the basis of the play but it was clear that he had put considerable thought into the mise-en-scene, in making the play relevant to a Kenyan audience.
Juliet (Fridha Muhindi) says O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? (Act II, Scene 2) as she “twitters” the message to Romeo (Bruce Makau) who says the rest of Juliet’s lines “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d …” as he reads the message from his phone.
Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Likarion Wainaina) despises Romeo not just for being a Montague but also for being an ODM supporter. The roles of Peter, a servant in the Capulet household and the friar John are played by a courier (Brian Munene) and a lady pastor (Nunga Kuru) takes the place of the Franciscan friar Laurence, who marries the “star cross’d lovers”. The apothecary is a Maasai medicineman whose Swahili speech seemed improvised, while as proper Swahili verse may have been more in tandem with the general style of the play.
The plot of Romeo and Juliet is based on a 1562 English translation by Arthur Brooke of an Italian story called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Mercuto and the nurse are Shakepeare’s addition to the original story.
Mungai may have wanted to portray the protective role of the nurse (Josephine Mueni) but I am not altogether convinced that she needed to go as far as dressing up as an armed askari. Mercutio (Kevin Amwoma), brings comic relief to the play, with his easy-going manner and witty comments like, “If love be rough with you, be rough with love; Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.” (Act I, Scene 4) The writer and critic John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote, “Shakespeare show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc’d to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being killed by him.” In fact, after the death of Mercutio, the play takes a somber note.
There has been a lot of debate regarding the sexuality of the Mercutio owing to his comments and attitude towards Romeo and the blatantly gay Mercutio in this production would have achieved an excellent comic effect were it not for Amwoma’s faltering speech in some parts, possibly due to first night nerves.
Shakespearean text can be baffling to a modern audience but the cast for the most part delivered it well, with the right intonation and appropriate gestures, making the play well-understood and enjoyable. Muhindi’s performance in particular was laudable.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays and has been translated into almost every living language in the world, but when we finally see a proper Swahili translation on stage, then we shall know that Shakespeare has truly come to us.
© Anne Manyara 2011