Drama of the Mind in The Strong Room

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican May 16-22 2011)

Godfrey Ojiambo and Mwara Kung’u in Josephine Niala’s The Strong Room
Photo: courtesy of Josephine Niala

“RADIO is the theatre of the mind; television is the theatre of the mindless.” A quote attributed to the American comedian and television personality Steve Allen (1921-2000), which may hold some truth, at least in as far as drama is concerned.

Until the dawn of the television era in the 1950s, radio drama was a very popular form of entertainment from the 1920s. It’s prevalence in United States all but disappeared but in Britain, the BBC still produces radio drama and in fact, many renowned playwrights and screenwriters like Tom Stoppard launched their careers with radio drama.

Despite its relatively long history and its ability to effectively reach a huge audience at minimum cost, radio drama is not often given as much consideration as stage drama, even in academia, possibly due to its non-visual element. Tim Crook asserts in his book, Radio Drama: Theory and Practice, “I believe that theatre is as much about listening as it is about spectating.”

In fact, its dependence on dialogue, music and sound effects is precisely  what gives radio drama its finesse, as it cannot rely on visual gimmicks to make up for poor text.

Godfrey Ojiambo and Mwara Kung’u in Josephine Niala’s The Strong Room
Photo: Courtesy of Josephine Niala

This is exemplified in The Strong Room a radio drama play by Kenyan playwright Josephine Niala that was brought on to the stage at The Rusty Nail restaurant in Karen, on 31st March 2011. The play, which was initially aired on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted in the annual BBC World Service African Performance playwriting competition last year.

Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, who judged the first competition in 1971, judged the competition again in 2010, picking Ugandan Deborah Asiimwe’s Will Smith Look-Alike as the winning play.

As Tim Crook explains, radio drama “is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension”. This visual force, which is dependent on the listener’s imagination, was still maintained in the stage production of The Strong Room, which Niala directed herself, owing to the minimalist stage set and the sound effects.

Upon being burgled, a lady (Mwara Kung’u) shuts herself in her bedroom, which is actually a strong room that her son had installed for just such an occasion. Unfortunately, she has to share it with one of the burglars, (Godfrey Ojiambo), who finds himself locked in, when the security system malfunctions as a result of a power cut carried out by the burglars themselves.

After administering first aid to his foot, which he broke in the mayhem, they are left with no choice but to enter a dialogue, which is mainly based on ‘you and us’, that is, ‘you’ the rich; ‘us’ the poor and ‘you’ the old; ‘us’ the young. The strong room then alludes to the wall around which the privileged have built around themselves for protection but from the burglar’s perspective, it is the wall they build to shut themselves away from the gaping misery surrounding them.

By the end of their conversation, when the power is reconnected and the strong room is open, the lady has won the burglar’s trust and she wishes him well as he leaves. But once he exits, she calls the guard at the gate to have him arrested, revealing the cold and ruthless streak which the burglar had accused ‘her lot’ of, and which she had managed to conceal during their conversation.

Both actors were well-directed so that there wasn’t any unnecessary movement on stage. Kung’u did the text justice through her diction and elocution and by bringing forth the internal attributes of the character, rather than the external ones through her well-measured energy throughout the performance.  On the other hand, Ojiambo’s performance paled against Kung’u’s and the part would have better been assigned to a more experienced actor.

The play will be staged again soon but it would be even better if it found its rightful place on Kenyan radio.

© Anne Manyara 2011


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