Falstaff (Mrisho Mpoto) and his associates
Translated into Swahili and localized in the Kenyan context by Joshua Ogutu (@ogutumuraya), a boisterous interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was presented at the 2012 Globe to Globe festival before embarking on an India tour in November 2012. This co-production by Better Pill and The Theatre Company is back in Kenya, much to the delight of local theatre buffs who had been impatiently waiting for a chance to see the show.
A comedy of manners
The plot revolves around a small community – located in Kiambu in the Swahili version – where intrigues are born of ambition, lust, greed and pure complacency. Falstaff, a corrupt politician who deludes himself into believing that he’s irresistible, tries to woo two married ladies with the exact same ‘love’ letter. When Bi. Ford and Bi. Page uncover the trick, they decide to take him for a ride, a plan that ends up creating a cascade of comical situations. A jealous husband, a shrewd, down-to-earth maid, a young couple whose love is threatened by the girl’s parents’ misplaced ambition and a host of grumpy undisciplined servants, complete the hilarious gallery of characters.
Here is the preview posted on The Theatre Company’s YouTube channel:
In an interview recorded by Globe International, actors Joshua Ogutu and Sharon Nanjos talked about their experience of rehearsing ‘Wanawake wa heri wa Winsa’ and performing the play at the Globe Theatre. They worked with director Daniel Goldman who brought on board a different perspective on theatre performance and managed to whip up a localized interpretation although he did not understand Swahili.
One of the most notable influences of this collaboration was the breakdown of the ‘fourth wall’, with audience members becoming participants in the unfolding of the story.
A performance shining through the language barrier
While some critics felt that the adaptation betrayed the spirit of Shakespearan comedy, most reviewers were enthusiastic about the performance given in April in London and Statford-upon-Avon.
The fact that part of the audience decided to brave the rain to attend the show testifies to the interest raised by ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’ at the Globe to Globe festival. Only a handful of Swahili-speakers were present, but this did not seem to mar the success of the play, as Dr. Sarah Olive reported :
The audience’s unceasing mirth was proof of the way in which the actors captured a panoply of characters’ essences through their mannerisms, facial expressions and intonation in a way that transcended language and appealed to a global community.
This view is shared by Rob Wilson of Think Africa Press:
While information about the bare bones of the plot were projected on a side-screen in English during the play, the quality of the performance was such that the audience did not need to be Kiswahili speakers to understand what was going on and laugh in all the right places.
Some of the finer details and nuances might have been lost in the process, but the excellent acting definitely made the show worthwhile even for non-Swahili speakers.
Reception in Nairobi
Being Swahili-speakers and familiar with the setting of the play, Nairobians had access to the full experience, including the social cues and linguistic nuances. The translation uses modern, conversational Swahili to reflect the contemporary context, which facilitated understanding but missed the opportunity to include a certain poetic turn of phrase one would expect of a Shakespeare play. I think the Swahili language would lend itself graciously to such an endeavour.
In ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’, langage is widely used as a social marker highlighting Kenyan stereotypes: the scheming, greedy maid spoke in a Kikuyu accent, the aggressive kanzu-wearing doctor was supposed to be a Somali and only expressed himself in broken Swahili, and the shady characters serving as Falstaff’s valets were Sheng’ speakers. This added a comic twist to the plot, with each appearance of Bi. Quickly (the maid) causing new fits of hilarity.
Also worthy of note is the successful transposition in Kenyan society of issues originally set in Elizabethan England. Women’s empowerment within a conservative society and the lurking power of greed were themes that ran through the play, evoking current social tensions in Kenya. Had I not known that it was a translation, I would easily have believed that the play was written by a Kenyan with reference to today’s Kenya.
In line with the expectations set by earlier reviews, the acting did not disappoint. The cast of 8 deployed immense energy to manage 18 parts, bringing to life the Windsor community in front of our eyes and constantly engaging the audience to take part in the action. It is however regrettable that several of the initial cast members were replaced, thus compromising the harmony of the group.
Poor lighting and distracting background banner at the Nairobi performance, 15th December 2012
For all its merits, the performance had some major technical shortcomings. The lighting had clearly not been thought through, to disastrous consequences. A lone white projector lit only part of the stage … and a house in the background which was not part of the set. The technician tried to rectify this during the show, unfortunately to no avail. As a result, the actors could not make full use of the space and had to wriggle around, upsetting stage balance.
Finally, I understand the sponsors’ demands for publicity but having a sponsors’ banner as a backstage wall is really taking it too far!
Disappointing turnout for this quality production
Overall, we were treated to a quality performance. I especially want to salute the translation effort and the creative work that went into adapting ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into a lively, truculent Kenyan play.
It is a shame that despite the show being advertised on the popular blog Nairobi Now, on Facebook and at Alliance Française, Nairobians still did not turn up in large numbers for Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa:
Did you attend the play in England, in India or in Kenya? Share your experience with us in the comments section below or on Twitter (@hardcorekancil) !
Photo credits: Maneno Matamu