(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 11th -17th April 2011)
“I have spent a lot of time with grown-ups. I have seen them at very close quarters which I’m afraid has not greatly enhanced my opinion of them,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) in his most famous novella, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) (1943).
As part of the Francophone Week festivities, the book was performed in French at Alliance Française from 14th -18th March 2011, directed by Victor Ber and Sammy Mwangi, creating a fresh perspective of the book as the actors brought the characters to life.
Characters are defined and understood by the language they use and this was well portrayed by Kevin Gitau, whose costume, gait, and intonation brought forth the frivolity of The Little Prince.
De Saint-Exupéry contrasts the innocence and purity of childhood against the pretentious and superficial pursuits of adulthood. He claims, for example, “If you were to mention to grown-ups, ‘I have seen a beautiful house, built with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof…’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them, ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand pounds and they would exclaim, ‘Oh! How lovely!’ ”
The purity and simplicity of life as seen through a child’s eyes is a pertinent theme in any culture. It is therefore no wonder that the book has been translated into more than 190 languages, including Latin and, thankfully, in 2009 the Kiswahili translation by Philipp Kruse and Walter Bgoya was published by Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in Tanzania.
In a performance space, the text, transformed from the written word into the spoken word, takes on a new dimension. Shavajai Franz lent his voice to the author as the narrator, while Ishmael Kerongo was the author as a character in the book. Franz and Kerongo also played various other characters like The king, The Conceited Individual and The Drunkard, amongst other characters, who The Little Prince encounters in his journey across the planets.
Apart from conveying meaning, words also trigger images in our minds. The directors used an onstage screen to portray images like the sunset and flowers, which The Little Prince talks about extensively. The screen was also used to project the illustrations from the book, which are central to the text and to create a silhouette of The Little Prince, skipping about in childish glee but most crucially, it was integral to the stage lighting, which set the mood of the performance and created the dreamlike world of The Little Prince.
There were also pictures of local and foreign politicians including Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe and Muamar Gadafi which I did not find very appropriate as the general thrust of the book is not a political discourse but a reflection on the essence and purity of life.
Inasmuch as the king on one of the planets that The Little Prince visits is described as “an absolute monarch” he was still “very kind” and “gave reasonable orders.” He explains that “authority is first and foremost based on reason.”
If there is any discussion leaning towards the political, then it is more from a socio-economic perspective rather than reference to actual leadership. For example, the businessman explains to the Little Prince, “Kings own nothing. They reign over. It is quite different.” Then he continues, “When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to no one, it is yours. When you are the first to have an idea, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. And I own the stars because nobody else before me thought of owning them.”
Nonetheless, the text, the images, the lighting and the costume converged seamlessly to illustrate the words that The Fox says to The Little Prince, and what has become de Saint-Exupéry’s most quoted line: On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. (It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.)
© Anne Manyara 2011