Love By Shakespeare

(This review appeared in The East African 10th-16th March 2014 under the title ‘Hate’ in the Footsteps of ‘Love By Shakespeare’)
William ShakespeareFor many people, if truth be told, Shakespeare has been the bane of many a gloomy English lesson. Not least because Elizabethan English, to the modern scholar, may sound tedious and complicated and speaking in verse may be bewildering.

In addition, for the modern audience that’s used to two-hour-maximum action-packed movies, sitting through three hours of Othello, for example, exceedingly outstretches the average attention span.

For a theatre director it gets even more complicated. Staging a Shakespeare play involves high costs for the large cast and detailed costume. In Kenya, there is hardly a theatre that can allow for elaborate sets and scene changes (e.g. a rotating stage) for, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

However, Canadian actor and director Robin Denault circumvents these obstacles in a production titled Love by Shakespeare that was put on at Phoenix Theatre early last year (2013).

The play begins when Robin Goodfellow (Jack Gitonga)- one of the characters from A Midsummer, also known as Puck, ‘escapes’ from Shakespeare’s fictional world. Since he is no longer confined to the script, a lot is permissible hereafter. Three other fairies from the play (Mkamzee Chao Mwatela, Samson Psenjen and Charles Ouda) follow him- to his dismay. He is further disgruntled to find that they are still on a stage before an audience.

He briefly narrates the central action of A Midsummer and goes on to lament how obsessed “we mortals” are with love, drawing examples from Romeo and Juliet and Othello and briefly veering into Hamlet, before stopping himself.

The puppets used for Othello and Desdemona Photo by Robin Denault

On the surface of it, it seems quite simple and straight forward: Denault picks out only the most interesting and famous monologues from two of Shakespeare’s tragedies, using a well-loved comedy as the main frame, with his commentary on Shakespeare between scenes. But in effect, it involves innovative mise-en-scene, using original songs, puppets and masks and- a very rare thing- the savouring of Shakespeare’s text.

Gitonga presents a delightful, easy-going Puck. “He was good, I must admit that,” says Puck, about Shakespeare. “If you write as many plays as he did he did you’re bound to get it right once in a while.”

The stage is bare, save for the box that Puck walks in with at the beginning of the play. It is at once a storage box out of which comes out The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and various items of clothing for the various scenes and it is also the ‘balcony’ on which Juliet stands during the famous balcony scene.

Ouda plays Romeo and Mwatela Juliet in an abridged version of the balcony scene with such natural poise and flow of words that I actually discovered innuendo in the text that had previously been lost on me. Such as when Romeo says, “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” to which Juliet replies, “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?”

Psenjen then sings The Messenger Was Late to explain why Romeo kills himself and at the end of the scene, they fall back into their characters as fairies and laugh in mockery of such obsession with love.

The next scene introduces Othello and Desdemona, both of whom are human-hand puppets controlled by Psenjen and Mwatela respectively. However, Gitonga wears a mask to play the conniving Iago. The stage is dark, save for little lights above the puppets (very much like Japanese Bunraku puppets) and Gitonga holding a torch to illuminate his face.

Constantly bombarded by special effects in film, this scene is a reminder that theatre too has its special visual effects. And with minimal use of the actor’s body, this scene accentuates the text- the flow and the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words, especially enhanced by Psenjen’s trade-mark diction. If only English lessons on Shakespeare were more like this!

The sombreness of the scene is lightened a little with the song To Die For Love sang by Desdemona in which she says “now I know this fact at least, it is much better to be alive, than be in love and quite deceased…”

Psenjen and Mwatela as Demetrius and Helena Photo by Charles Kamau
Psenjen and Mwatela as Demetrius and Helena Photo by Charles Kamau

Then finally, the story of A Midsummer, which was started at the beginning, is completed. Gitonga retains his role as Pluck, Ouda plays Lysander, Psenjen plays Demetrius and Mwatela plays Helena. Hermia is represented by a mannequin’s head with a wig on it. Gitonga says Hermia’s lines in a high-pitched voice while holding the mannequin’s head. ‘She’ moves across the stage by being tossed from one actor to another in a most comical manner, the height of the humour being in her line: “Puppet! Why so? Because I am so dwarfish and so low?”

The play ends with Robin Goodfellow’s final monologue that ends: “So, goodnight to you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends. And Robin shall make amends.” -The double entendre (Denault’s first name) not being lost.

The sequel, Hate by Shakespeare, which uses Richard III as the frame story, is scheduled to show in Nairobi in the next couple of weeks.

© Anne Manyara 2014


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