Whole- some Bourgeois Drama

(This review appeared in The East African 16th-22nd February 2013 under the title A Meddling Family and A Thankless Audience)

Anita Juma as Olive, Njeri Ngige as Ivy, Brian Ogola as Chris Photo: Zhuri Images
Anita Juma as Olive, Njeri Ngige as Ivy, Brian Ogola as Chris Photo: Zhuri Images

Poison Ivy, Seth Busolo’s ninth full-length play, a Wholesome Entertainment production, directed by Pauline Komu, premiered at Alliance Française on Friday 8th February. However, it is not being a prolific playwright- nine plays in three years- that makes Busolo stand out but rather, the fact that his entire oeuvre is so far, Kenya’s most authentic bourgeois drama.

It’s barely three weeks since Chris (Brian Ogola) and Olive (Anita Juma) have been married, but Chris seems incapable of disengaging himself from his meddlesome family especially his sister, Ivy (Njeri Ngige). Chris hasn’t been honest to Olive about his former fiancée, Betty, who, it turns out, was actually imposed on him by his family. This inevitably brews a lot of tension between Chris and Olive, which is not made easier by Chris’s well-meaning but intrusive friends Bob (Justin Karunguru) and Dr Andrew Smith (Eddy Peter). Tension and rivalry between these two friends spin an interesting sub-plot and comic relief. Eventually Ivy’s recklessness and selfishness bring Olive into a situation where she is fighting for her life.

The text is well-written , save for Chris’s monologue towards the end, which, given the intensity of the moment, could have said more with fewer words.

The play ends on a cliff hanger when Ivy, who has just packed her bags to finally leave her brother’s house, dashes off the stage in pursuit of Chris, on learning that Olive has woken up from her coma, leaving her bags at the door. Marcus Olang, the MC, then walks on to the stage and announces the end of the play.

“No!” shouts the audience. They want to know see what happens next. Has Olive recovered? And where is the unseen character, Betty? They want to see her too. “I cannot bring Betty here”, says Olang, “she’s a trouble maker. Don’t we all have a Betty in our lives?”

“Then take Ivy’s bags off the stage”, the audience says, “she must leave that house.” Olang walks into the set and takes Ivy’s bags ‘to her’, blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Mary Wairimu as policewoman, Ogola and Juma Photo by Zuhri Images
Mary Wairimu as policewoman, Ogola and Juma Photo by Zuhri Images

I am a little taken aback at first, perhaps being used to more stuffy theatre audiences, but I am impressed too. I wonder if this is what Bertold Brecht was trying to achieve with his verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect). Brecht was opposed to the audience’s passiveness in realist theatre, that is, when the audience behaves like as if the action on stage is taking place in another world. He therefore used the V-effekt to make the audience step out of the action and comment and react to it.  Olang’s engagement with the audience ostensibly creates this alienation effect.

Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth.” In same breath, the German-Swiss painter Paul Klee said, “Art doesn’t produce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” So it is in theatre. The actor prepares, and he plays a character. In a very good performance, he stays in character throughout the performance. The entire cast manages this remarkably well.

But on some occasions- and I haven’t seen many of these-  something beyond the artist (art) takes over and makes truth visible.  Such a moment happens when Chris receives the news that his wife has been viciously attacked and is in a critical condition. He takes in a deep breath seemingly to hold back his tears. The character, Chris, overrides the actor, Ogola, in a spell-binding moment. I was drawn into the action and held captive, but not for long though, because there were a few sniggers in the audience.

What a shame that such a moment completely eluded by those people. And what lack of respect and lack of appreciation for the tireless effort put in by the actors. I’d give this challenge to those tittering members of the Nairobi audience who think that everything has to be for a laugh: Get on stage and try to convince people that you are crying, when you are actually not crying.

Then they may realise how much focus and concentration an actor needs to get into and stay in character and that it would help to be a little more considerate to the actors and to other members of the audience.

Audience participation is all very well but while there are times to laugh and shout, there are also times to be quiet and let the spirit of art flow.

© Anne Manyara 2013

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