A Varied Repertoire at Phoenix

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 30th January-5th February 2012 under the title Women’s Mid-life Crises, Sex and Marriage at Phoenix)

June Gachui as Shirley Valentine pht by PhoenixIt has been a very varied repertoire at Phoenix Theatre in the month of January with the fun and frolics of the comic opera Pirates of Nairobi Dam, sunshine and laughter in the comedy Shirely Valentine and the grim side of life in the drama Respect.

On Friday 13th January, I watched Shirley Valentine (1986) by Willy Russell, a one-character play in three acts about a middle-aged woman, Mrs Shirley Bradshaw (June Gachui) who has reached that point in her life where she looks back and wonders what happened to Shirley Valentine, the girl she was before she became Mrs Bradshaw. A trip to Greece lets her re-discover herself and the end of the play hints at the possibility that she may take this journey of discovery with her husband.

The play is a light take on mid-life crisis in women, focusing on a woman’s role in marriage in contrast with her own desires, very much like Dario Fo’s A Woman Alone, which was written five years later.

Gachui appositely depicts your run-of-the-mill, modern, British housewife whose accent however, leans more to BBC English rather than Liverpool working class. She nonetheless managed to draw the audience into the world of Shirley Valentine, revealing a blunt reality that most people must have recognised, at the end of which, she received a standing ovation.

Shirley’s drab life has reduced her to speaking to the wall and her repeated reference to this wall invokes the vision of ‘the fourth wall’- the imaginary separation between the audience and the performance, which is the main emphasis of realism in theatre. The director, Millicent Ogutu pushes this realism to its end in act I, where Shirley peels potatoes, washes them under running water, cooks real chips and fries a real egg on a real gas cooker in a properly fitted kitchen.

Ogutu chose to keep this play in the original setting of Liverpool while as it would have sat so easily in Nairobi, just as it would easily fit in Kampala or Dar or Mumbai. The average forty-something woman anywhere in the world would certainly identify with Shirley Bradford’s quest for Shirley Valentine.

Karanja, Kagwanja and Gitonga in Respect photo by Joel Magu
Karanja, Kagwanja and Gitonga in Respect photo by Joel Magu

On 20th January I went to the opening of Respect (2005) by the German playwright Lutz Hubner also directed by Millicent Ogutu.

The play is set in the office of a psychologist, Korbert (Samson Psenjen) who has been charged with assessing the mental health of Cem (Martin Githinji) and Sinan (Jack Gitonga) and their subsequent eligibility to be tried in court for the murder of Elena (Njoki Kagwanja).

In this play, Ogutu shows she can do as much with theatricalism as she can with realism. She uses space such that the current action takes place against an orange background and flashbacks take place against a blue background. The action is choreographed in some flash back scenes allowing the audience to imagine scenes on the highway and in the streets of cologne (in this case Naivasha) and eventually she blurs the demarcation between the past and current action.

The characters, like Shirley Valentine, are deeply psychological but unlike Shirley Valentine, who portrays normal, everyday-life, dilemnas, the characters of Respect, especially those of Cem and Ellena, show the dark side of the human psyche. They reflect, disturbingly, a young generation with distorted views of their identity and sexuality.

Hubner shows how this identity crisis comes from conflicting values in the culture of an immigrant population against the culture of the host country. So, Ellena, with a sense of liberated feminism uses her sexuality as a weapon and also as a mask that seems to hide past pain and confusion. Cem on the other hand, coming from a very male-dominated society sees only two types of women: the docile virgin- the type you marry and the overtly sexual- who you use to define your masculinity by dominating through sexual conquest.

The conflict seems to arise from the fact that Ellena refuses to be dominated and that when they sleep together, the sexual conquest is hers. Ulli (Margaret Karanja) and Sinan are the side-kicks, the good-natured youngsters who go with the flow because they also don’t know who they are. If Shirley Valentine is blunt, then Respect is raw.

Ogutu sets the play in Nairobi but the immigrant issue is so central to the action, that I felt it would have had the intended impact were it set in the original Germany, possibly even with type-casting. Nevertheless I wouldn’t begrudge her the recognition of the risks taken in directing two such plays.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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