A Varied Season at Phoenix

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican May 23-29 2011 under the title “Faith Upstaged Farce at Phoenix )

Agnes Mwandia as Mother Superior and Lydia Nyambura as Dr Livingston in “Agnes of God” Photo: Phoenix Players

PHOENIX Players have in this first part of the year presented a varied selection of plays, from farce, to serious drama. The year kicked off with James Falkland’s Changing Generations continuing from December. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was set to coincide with the Valentine’s season and this was followed by Kingfisher, set in the upper-class world of British playwright William Douglas-Home, described as “gentle humour, gentle manners and gentle folk in a well-made play” by Mary Redman of Stage Reviews.

Local Murder, a thriller by Peter Whalley run into March but the best play so far has been John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, directed by Nick Njache, which is possibly the best production I have watched in Nairobi in recent years.

The title Agnes of God, is a pun on the Latin words Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God). The play is about a young novice in a convent, found unconscious in her room, with a dead newborn infant in her wastepaper bin.

Agnes, a disturbed young girl, reveals her troubled past during sessions with the psychiatrist Dr Livingston (Lydia Nyambura), who has been asked by the court to establish the state of Agnes’s mental health, and to recommend whether she should face criminal charges for the murder of her infant or whether she should be send to a mental asylum.

Crystal Mbugua as Agnes in “Agnes of God”
Photo: Phoenix Players

Agnes (Crystal Mbugua) has neither recollection of how she conceived, her pregnancy, nor of the circumstances surrounding the infant’s birth and immediate death, but this is eventually revealed after the psychiatrist’s interrogation and under hypnosis.

The Mother Superior (Angela Mwandia), wants to believe Agnes’s claims of innocence and that the baby was conceived through a supernatural occurrence. She wants to believe that miracles still happen and the heated arguments between Mother Superior and Dr Livingston (a ‘lapsed’ Catholic) seem to put the church on trial.

Dr Livingston, a psychiatrist- an expert on the human mind and Mother Superior, a guide of the human soul, represent two, sometimes opposing, angles through which to understand our human existence, which is manifested in the turbulent life of Agnes- the former through pure reason, the latter through pure faith.

When the truth finally emerges, Mother Superior, disillusioned, takes the path of reason while Doctor Livingston, surprised by the turn of events, begins a quest for answers that reason cannot provide.

The play was well paced and well delivered and stands out from the plays in the rest of the programme (with the exception of Romeo and Juliet) not only in its ability to truly touch the hearts of the audience- atheists and believers alike- but in its ability to showcase the acting talent that the company has.

The characters in Agnes of God are challenging and demanding roles to play and are often milestones in an actress’s career.

The actors, who were well-directed, rendered three-dimensional, psychological characters. Mwandia and Nyambura were especially suited to their respective roles and Mwandia in particular presented a memorable Mother Superior. It was a sterling performance, which, in my view, deserves a re-run.

Angela Mwandia as Mother Superior and Crystal Mbugua as Agnes in “Agnes of God”
Photo: Phoenix Players

Smile Orange by Jamaican Playwright Trevor Rhone (1940-2009) followed Agnes of God, replacing Doho by Oby Obyer Odhiambo that was originally in the programme, and closed on May 14th. Don’t Misunderstand Me a comedy by Patrick Cargill open(ed) on Friday 20th May but the one to look out for is Nothing But Truth by award-winning South African actor, director and playwright John Kani, which will is scheduled to run from 16th-25th June.

The play, written in 2002, is set in post-apartheid South Africa and focuses not racial divide but on the animosity between those blacks who stayed in the country to fight the apartheid regime and those who fled to exile, returning only when apartheid had ended.

It is a play that should test the skills the director, offering exigent roles to the members of the cast and reprieve from farce and all, for those theatre goers who like something to chew on.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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