Apples From the Desert at Norfolk

(This review appeared in The East African 2nd-8th November 2013 under the title Apples from the Desert in Nairobi)

Zatara, Kiplagat, Mundia, Sakina and Mwai in Apples from the Desert Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru
Zatara, Kiplagat, Mundia, Sakina and Mwai in Apples from the Desert
Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru

At the Norfolk Hotel on Sunday 13th October, H.E. Ambassador Gil Haskel of Israel made an astute remark: he said that there isn’t a convergence of cultures that’s more poignant than what is found in theatre.

This he said in a speech prior to the performance of Apples From the Desert which opened at Phoenix Theatre on Friday 11th October. Savyon Liebrecht, the playwright, he explained, wrote the play from her cultural background and the Phoenix Players act from their cultural background, thus, the convergence of cultures.

The Phoenix production, directed by Lydia Githachu, aspires to be as authentic as possible to the play’s Jewish settings and it certainly is intriguing to see Kenyan actors personifying orthodox Jews.

It is, though, a little amusing at first to see Joshua Mwai who plays Reuven, the tyrannical patriarch, enter stage in a top hat and braids plaited from his temples to represent the long side curls that Jewish men wear. I would imagine it being even more amusing to the Jewish audience at Norfolk, but Mwai espouses the character with such tenacity that within no time at all, the manifest cultural differences are blurred, and only a cruel and oppressive Reuven dominates the stage.

Esther Mundia plays Victoria in what is so far, in my opinion, her most endearing performance. Melissa Kiplagat plays the role of Sara, Victoria’s hunchbacked sister, whose humour and light-hearted demeanour counters Reuven’s callousness, which she does with natural charisma, though a tad too agile for a hunchback. Mildred Sakina seems undecided about the character of Rivka- oscillating between the playfulness of a six-year-old and the headstrong determination of an eighteen-year-old and Claude Zatara seems to fall in and out of the character of Dooby, Rivka’s boyfriend, sometimes acting his lines and other times merely reciting them.

The play is adapted by the author from her short story of the same title that first appeared in 1986. It is set in Israel and deals with the place of women in the orthodox Jewish tradition and generational differences in ideology. These, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are recurrent themes in Liebrecht’s oeuvre.

Liebrecht’s parents, survivors of the Holocaust, moved to Israel when she was one. “The influence of the Holocaust on my work cannot be separated from the influence of theHolocaust on my life,” she says and goes on to explain how her parents never said anything about the Holocaust.

“There are people who talk obsessively and there are those who are silent without end, like in my home. You then need to guess. The silence was terrible…as a child I felt I was growing up in an atmosphere of secrets…Today I think about the enormous emotional burden that I carried on my shoulder. This was an entire generation that should have been taken in and hospitalised.These are people who underwent such a great trauma that it is impossible to treat them as normal.”Apples Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru 3

Reuven’s tyranny and Victoria’s inability to speak for herself or her daughter are to some degree, traces of a society coming to terms with a brutal past. Rivka’s search for freedom in a sense represents a new generation striving to break away from the psychological and social disorders created by a painful past.

The Sunday performance at Norfolk and indeed the entire production of the play, sponsored by the Israeli embassy, marks an on-going celebration of fifty years of collaboration between Kenya and Israel.

The choice of Norfolk as a venue may very well be symbolic- the cabinet secretary for Sports and Culture, Dr Hassan Wario , in his speech preceding the start of the play, reminded the audience of the bomb attack at the Norfolk in the 1980s, saying that it was due to the Kenya-Israeli friendship.

However, from the theatrical point of view, it was not a good choice. As the auditorium had no rake (the floor is not slanted towards the stage) I could barely see the action for the first half of the play. This was done off the raised staged on the extreme left of the house, for reasons I could not fathom. The entrances and exits were for the most part ill-timed since there wasn’t a proper set. In all fairness, I would probably write a more flattering review had I watched the play at Phoenix Theatre.

© Anne Manyara 2013

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