(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 5th-11th March 2012)
“Oh, duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does one’s self,” says Lord Illingworth in act II of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. The statement could easily be reminiscent of Beumarchais’ revolutionary line in The Marriage of Figaro “You took the trouble to be born, no more.”, referring to the aristocracy, who, like in many European cultures, did not have to work for a living, being heirs to family wealth, often land and real estate. However, Wilde claimed to have created Illingworth to reflect his own character. This was the last play he wrote before his infamous “defamation” suit and subsequent imprisonment.
In the Strathmore University Drama Society’s adaptation of the play, which I watched on 19th February in what is now the Wangari Maathai Auditorium at Alliance Française, Lord Illingworth is Ambassador George Kwalya (Nickson Walubengo) also referred to as Honourable Kwalya and Mrs Arbuthnot is Rachel Bunda (Mercy Shitolwa).
At a lavish party hosted by Mrs Sheina (Prisca Wamaitha), it is revealed that Hon. Kwalya has offered Mrs Sheina’s protégé, Gerald Bunda (Benjamin Kamicha), the lucrative post of being his secretary and the young man is obviously delighted at his new prospect. Meanwhile, towards the end of the first act, as Hon. Kwalya and the flirtatious Mrs Luvai (Dorcas Otieno) indulge in witty banter about ‘simple pleasures of life’ and whatnot, a name on the guest list catches Kwayla’s eye. He says it reminds him of a lady he used to know years ago. “Who?” asks Mrs Luvai. “Oh! No one,” he replies, “No one in particular. A Woman of No Importance.”
It turns out that this woman of no importance is Rachel Bunda, a lady with whom Kwalya had a fleeting romance twenty years ago and that Gerald Bunda, who he has offered a job, is actually his son. Rachel is therefore totally opposed to Gerald taking up the post while Kwalya says that being his son should be all the more reason for Gerald to take the post. Then when the gallivanting Kwalya attempts to kiss Miss Mandi (Carol Njoki) who Gerald is in love with, Gerald says he will kill Kwalya but that’s when his mother tells him that he cannot, because Kwalya is his father.
By and large, the cast delivered Wilde’s dark humour with precision not only through the text but also through the interpretation of the action taking place outside of the text. For example, in the scene where Mrs Luvai tells the other ladies her views on love and marriage, saying things like, “The ideal husband? There couldn’t be such a thing, the institution is wrong.”, the long conversations are livened by Mrs Luvai constantly extending her hand to have her glass refilled by the servant.
Kamicha showed versatility fitting as easily into a character of modest background as he has with characters of higher status in previous productions, Otieno as Mrs Luvai presented an authentic Kenyan Mrs Allonby and Ameline Abuko as Mrs Mambo was the proper snob and a delightful and memorable Lady Carol Pontefract.
The costume was well-selected and enhanced the attributes of all the characters. The director, Nick Muthama chose to depict Lady Stutfield who in this production was Shirley (Alfine Ogola), as an unrefined, maladroit lady trying to fit into high society and this came across mainly through her costume.
Adapting the play into a Kenyan situation however, was something else altogether, considering that the play depicts nineteenth century English aristocracy and attempting to situate this within Kenya’s political elite did not entirely come off but revealed limited research into the social and historical intricacies in which the play was written.
The adaptation of the text was thus sometimes misplaced, with such paradoxical terms as “Nairobi country life” to draw a parallel to the English country gentry (those who live in the countryside).
Lord Illingworth’s well-known words in Act I, when he speaks of the popular idea of health as being: “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” which refers to the controversial upper class sport, is replaced by Hon. Kwalya speaking of “a hungry man running after a hyena- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” Though I found this quite humorous it would probably have also been deeply philosophical if there were a well-thought out cohesive thrust of the adaptation in general.
© Anne Manyara 2012