Ibsen Through the Eyes of Strathmore

(This critique appeared in The EastAfrican March 7-13 under the title Treachery and deciet behind the façade)

Beverley Ongota as Lona Hassa and Nickson Walubengo as Stanley Baneki

THE heavy sound of a door being slammed is heard from below. These are the last words in the last scene of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which critics later referred to as ‘the slammed door that was heard across Europe’.

Such was and is the impact of Henrik Ibsen(1828-1906) who is often called the father of modern drama. As M. F. Bellinger wrote in 1927, ‘His plays scorched, but they fascinated the rising generation, and they stuck to the boards.’

The door in the scene referred to here is slammed by Nora, one of Ibsen’s famous heroines, as she walks out on her husband Torvald, shortly after telling him ‘I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are’ (Act III).  Such  feminist views are commonplace today but in 1879, when the play was first performed, this was considered outrageous.

While I was recently reading about the inaugural, Norwegian-funded ‘Ibsen Through African Eyes’ conference, which was held in Lusaka, Zambia, in October 2010, I was not surprised that A Doll’s House was the main focus of the conference as the themes addressed in the play are still pertinent in modern-day Africa.

I would say as much for Ibsen’s Pillars of Society (1877), which was staged by the Strathmore Drama Society on February 27 at Alliance Française, only that it may not have as rousing an effect as A Doll’s House would. I doubt that those who hold public office in our society would go through so much trouble to uphold the image of God-fearing do-gooders as do the characters in Pillars of Society.  Today’s Kenya is such that, being arraigned in court by the KACC may be an inconvenience, but it is unlikely to lead one’s social demise.

The opening scene presents the ‘best’ women in the community weaving various artifacts for charity while listening to sermons by the school master Roland (Martin Abuya) in the house of Stanely Baneki (Nickson Walubengo), the richest and most respected man in the community- a successful businessman and a philanthropist, a pillar of society. However, as is the case with many of Ibsen’s characters, there is a lot of treachery and deceit behind this façade.

First, he abandoned his true love Lona Hassa (Beverley Ongota) for her half-sister Betty (Sylvia Mati) who he married for her money. Then, he had a ‘boyish escapade’ with a local actress but managed to escape through the window when the actress’s drunken husband arrived unexpectedly. Johan Tonze (Geoffrey Omundi) Baneki’s close friend and Betty’s younger brother offered to take the blame and left for America with his half sister Lona to get away from the scandal. Baneki then spread a rumour about Johan saying that he had stolen money from their mother’s company, although in truth, the company was bankrupt.

The return of Johan and Lona threatens to unveil Baneki’s good-guy façade. Johan falls in love with Dina Daudi (Karol Njoki) a girl living with the Banekis and she agrees to marry him. Johan therefore plans to leave for America to sell his farm and promises that on his return, he will reveal the whole truth. Baneki would rather Johan dies than have him reveal the truth so he allows Johan to sail on this unseaworthy ship, The Indian Girl, which he has been told is very likely to sink in the high seas.

The cast put on a good show and maintained their energy to the end, even though there was no interval. It was good to see Mati play a lead role and Ongota brought out a fiery, bold and independent Lona that was delightful to watch. The set was quite elaborate giving the stage a lot of depth with scenes played in the living room and out in the garden situated back stage, with a boat docked in the blue sea for a back drop.

The lightning and thunder in the last act, the music from the parade marching towards Baneki’s house with the townspeople coming to award him for his ‘great deeds’, and the apprehensive members of the cast looking out of the window, some fascinated by what they saw, some wanting to draw the curtains in fear, gave the play tempo, and an anxious mood and atmosphere.

Baneki's Business Associates
Baneki's Business Associates

By far, the most commendable effort in adapting the play was making the characters real and believable, not so much by adapting their names (Bernick being Baneki for example) but through the typcast, yet tastefully selected costume that defined each character. Most notable was the manner in which the costume of Stanstad (Christopher Ragwar), Michael Vigeland (Dominic Mogaka) and Rama (Bigomokero Banyabo) suggested their unscrupulous business dealings with Baneki right from their first entry in Act I.

© Anne Manyara 2011

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. JG says:

    awsome

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