Fate Twists A Tale In Baghdad

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 26 December 2011- 1 January 2012 under the title A Tale of Love and the Murder of a Troubled Wazir in Baghdad)

Kismet 1There is an old story, which has been told in different versions, about a man who was walking through a marketplace in Baghdad when he saw Death standing across the street calling out to him. Obviously frightened, the man immediately got on his horse and rode as fast as he could to Samarra. Later that night in Samarra, there was a knock on the door of the house where the man was sleeping. When he opened the door, he saw Death standing there.

“Why did you call out to me when you saw me in Baghdad?” the man asked.

“I was not calling out to you,” Death replied, “I was just surprised to see you for I knew that tonight, we had an appointment in Samarra.”

This story is told to illustrate how man cannot escape his destiny, or fate, or kismet- a theme that has fascinated us for as long as we have pondered our existence. In theatre, the genre of tragedy is the one that is primarily concerned with destiny and man in the face of his mortality.

However, Robert Wright’s and George Forrest’s musical Kismet (1952) is comedy’s light-hearted take on destiny, which I watched on 10th December at Braeburn Theatre. It was a Kenya Conservatoire of Music production directed by Nancy Day.

Kismet is the story of a  poet (Steve Katingima) who goes to beg outside a mosque in Baghdad and upsets three other beggars who claim that he is on their ‘begging turf’. There is a fourth beggar called Hajj who has gone for the annual pilgrimage and the poet claims that he is also called Hajj and that he is the cousin of the missing beggar. In so doing, fate or kismet sets him on a series of adventures which begin when he is kidnapped by Jawan (Kennedy Oduor) and his band of robbers, who have been looking for the real Hajj.

He ends up in the court of the wazir (Leslie Mshagha), who has too many problems on his mind to realise that his wife Lalume (Tracy Mugo), is a bored temptress on the lookout for excitement and has her eye on the poet. The wazir’s most pressing issue is that he has taken a loan from the sultan of Ababu on the condition that the wazir will arrange for the Caliph of Baghdad to marry one or all three of the princesses of Ababu, who are all a nasty piece of work.Kismet 3

Meanwhile, the Caliph (Waithaka Gatumia), who is roaming the streets incognito with his advisor Omar (Tirath Padam) sees the Poet’s daughter Marsinah (Julia Njoroge) and falls in love with her.

The plot is intertwined with twists of fate and eventually, love triumphs as the Caliph marries his true love Marsinah, the Wazir is killed, his wife Lalume takes off with Hajj the poet and they all live happily ever after.

In musical theatre, drama, dance and music all have equal importance but the Conservatoire’s musical was clearly biased towards music, with twenty-four players in the orchestra, a strong soprano chorus and brilliant singing from the main cast.

It was therefore good music, excellent singing and fine acting botched by choreography that involved five dancers doing what looked like Arabian-inspired step-aerobics for the aged. For scenery there was only a black curtain with ribbon sewn to it in the shape of an arch and the costume looked like they simply made do with whatever they could find- Marsinah in the first scenes for example, was dressed like a 19th century European peasant girl, when we’d been made to believe that we were in Baghdad.

The sound system was off and on and this made it difficult for the audience to follow the story whose plot is intricate and detailed and though the cast managed to bag a number of laughs, a lot of the humour was still lost due to the sound system mishaps.  However, the music largely made up for this and helped to piece the story together and popular songs like ‘Stranger in Paradise’ were well-delivered.Kismet 2

© Anne Manyara 2011

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