Strathmore on the Wilde side

Sunday October 10 2010

A scene from the Strathmore Drama Society’s production. The cast gave a lively performance until the end, but the play could have done with an interlude. Photo/ANNE MANYARA

Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold described himself as the “author of the spectacle,” which is fitting because, while the playwright uses words to communicate his ideas, the director uses stage action.

His job is to identify what another great Russian, theatre theoritician Constantin Stanislavski, called the spine of the play and then communicate this interpretation to the rest of the production team.

In turn, the production team communicates these ideas using scenic elements within the theatrical space and time.

But this was not the only task that director Nick Muthama had to tackle in the Strathmore University Drama Society’s production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which I watched at Alliance Française on September 10.

He was also faced with the challenge of adapting the play into a Nairobi context and this requires much more than merely Africanising the dramatis personae.

What makes adaptations difficult is the fact that certain aspects of a society’s peculiarities cannot be “cut and pasted” into another society.


For instance, the mannerisms of the British upper class are not the same as those of the French upper class, so that translation from one language into the other may result in an unconvincing reality.

Muthama’s task of shifting the play from a Victorian English context into a modern Nairobi middle-class context must have been daunting.

By and large, however, it did come off, save for little discrepancies like the fact that Nairobi does not have a “season,” which was a time of the year when the upper class society in London would hold parties and other social events.

Any success the play may have achieved by way of adaptation I would attribute to the costumes, which were chosen with precision and finesse and which reflected an accurate understanding of the general style of the play and portrayed the psychology of the characters.

The cast was of mixed ability, with Maureen Koech and Ezekiel Mackenzie — who played Miss Mabel and Honourable Kasha, respectively — fitting well into their roles.

Sheila Mukami, who played Madam Gertrude, gave a sterling performance.

However, Nzilani Kaunda did not deliver a three-dimensional Mrs Manda.

This role would have probably been better played by the more talented Sylvia Mati, who played the minor role of Madam Makali.

I appreciate that Kaunda may have been given this role so that Mrs Manda and Madam Gertrude be roughly the same age, as they were classmates, but sometimes typecasting may cost the production the creativity of a better suited actor or actress, especially for a lead character.

The cast, all the same, gave a lively performance. This was well-paced until the end, but the play could have done with an interlude.

The stage movements were not well choreographed. There was a scene where Madam Makali was seated and had to turn her head awkwardly to speak to Robert Lutala (Nickson Walubengo) standing behind her.

And in another scene, there were flowers on the coffee table upstaging Gori (Geoffrey Omundi).

A conversation in a play, even in realistic theatre, is not every-day, banal conversation. It is sifted, so that every word has weight, every sentence moves the plot and every conversation generates action.

In the same way, the movements of the actors are not the ordinary ones of everyday life, even in realistic theatre.

The director uses the subtle art of blocking to create a stage picture that communicates his ideas.

An actor saying a line while standing still will have a completely different effect from the same actor saying the same line while walking towards another actor.

And while a film director uses close-up shots to focus on a particular actor, or to give a particular actor more prominence over the others, the theatre director will have one actor standing while the rest are seated, for example, or one lying down while the rest stand.

In this production, Muthama could have made better use of the set, like having a character speaking from the top of the staircase, while the rest look up to him, which would have amplified the action.

Having said that, I am of the opinion that members of the Strathmore Drama Society have shown admirable maturity in their openness to criticism, which is reflected in the noticeable improvement in the quality of every production they stage.

The play is mainly about political corruption.