(This review appeared in The East African 23rd-29th November 2013 under the title Hilarious Wanawake wa Heri)
If ever there has been a first-rate example of theatricalism, then it is The Theatre Company’s production of Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa. Translated into Kiswahili by Joshua Ogutu, this is not merely a translation but also an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The play was first performed at the Globe Theatre in London during the Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and later in the year toured in India. The London performance was co-directed by Daniel Goldman for The Theatre Company and Sara Norman for The Bitter Pill Company. I watched it earlier this year at the National Museum outdoor amphitheatre and again at Phoenix Theatre.
The title of the play refers to Windsor Castle in England but it just so happens that we have Windsor Hotel in Kenya, which forms the premise of the Kenyan adaptation.
The infamous but loveable character of Sir John Falstaff has not only enthralled audiences over the centuries but also inspired operas. In this production, Tanzanian actor Mrisho Mpoto presents a Bwana Falstaff like no other. Cartwheeling and somersaulting in his fat suit is a spectacle in itself, but it is his seduction of Bi Page (Kitt Nyangaya) and Bi Ford(Veronica Ngugi) in flawless Tanzanian Kiswahili that makes him most endearing to a Kenyan audience.
Caius (Neville Misati) is a Somalian doctor (instead of French), who comes complete with the fiery temper and Joshua Ogutu (Ogutu Moraya) presents an unforgettable Bi Quicky, made all the more
comical by the fact that Ogutu plays the role still sporting a beard.
While realism aims to create an illusion of real life, theatricalism aims to create theatrical images. Realism attempts to make us forget we are in a theatre whereas theatricalism constantly reminds us we’re in a theatre by repeatedly exposing the mechanisms of theatre.
All the actors in the play, except for Mpoto, play two or more characters. Double-casting has always been common, even in the time of Shakespeare. But in this play, sometimes the actor will change from one character into the other whilst still on stage.
Neville Misati plays the roles of all three suitors of Anne Page (Syliva Namusassi) that is, Caius, Slender and Fenton.In one scene, both Slender and Fenton are present and Misati alternates between the two characters by moving to and from their respective stage positions and donning an orange jacket to distinguish the rather flamboyant Slender, from Anne Page’s preferred suitor, Fenton. Misati, however, keeps ‘forgetting’ to switch to the required character and the other actors keep stopping the play momentarily to shout, ‘Fenton!’
The actors fall in and out of character in this manner throughout the performance and this adds to the humour and cheery spirit of the play. In another instance, an actress literally runs away from the scene, out of ‘fear’ of the situation her character is in.
An irate, dagger-wielding Dr Caius confronts the old and frail Bwana Evans (Namusassi). Namusassi screams and runs to the back of the auditorium. The other actors stop acting and say, “where has Sylvia gone?” and call out to her to come back. She comes back looking a bit shaken, explaining how the dagger had really scared her. (Here blurring the line between fiction and reality.)“Where were we?” they ask and they go back to the scene, ‘freeze’ it, get back into character and then get on with the play.
There is also a lot of interaction with the audience. Falstaff’s love letters to Bi Page and Bi Ford are given to an audience member and audience members are asked to help Robert and John to carry Falstaff offstage in a laundry basket. When the angry Bwana Ford (Mourad Sadat) realises that he has been tricked, he tells them all off, including the audience members, who are still on stage.
The use of stylised, and in some instances, choreographed slapstick, is another hallmark of the play. There is a memorable scene where Bi Quickly, all flustered, has to make a dash off stage. She does little sideways steps to the right, to the left, to the right again and then runs off stage, just as a cartoon character would. The fact that it is ‘slapstick for slapstick’s sake’ turns what would otherwise be banal humour into genuine hilarity.
The translation and adaptation make this rendition of The Merry Wives of Windsor a Kenyan play but the use of theatricalism is what gives it the badge of authenticity, as this is what comes closest to the aesthetics of African performance- the minimal the performer/audience divide and the fluidity of the performance space. It is all in all, a landmark production in the history of Kenyan theatre.
© Anne Manyara 2013