National Troupe...Still Dwelling In Swamps
(as published by the Sunday Guardian, June 07, 2009.)
THE end of last year and the beginning of this year was a very exciting one at the National theatre, Iganmu Lagos. That was because for that season of celebrations, the management of the theatre decided to mount on stage, one of the classics of Ola Rotimi, Kurunmi, for the viewing pleasure of its thinning audience.
Aside the reputation of the play and its playwright, the fact that the artistic director would be Ben Tomoloju was also more than sufficient to challenge more than the theatre buffs to queue up for tickets at the National Theatre box office.
The media reviews, from the first rehearsals to the last performance were electrifying. The cast, crew, management and directorial crew received heaps of praises for a job well done. When it finally opened, it lived up to its reputation on all fronts. It was the kind of play production a first timer at the theatre needed to see to become permanently addicted to the theatre gospel. Even when the halls were barely filled except for the day of command performance and on the last of the eleven straight shows, those who did not come but saw the trailer or the review in the media knocked themselves for not coming and resolved not to miss such an opportunity again in the future.
Soon, an opportunity to live up to their resolution came. This time, the National Theatre was to stage the production of Wole Soyinka's Swamp Dwellers. It was to be directed by Nick Monu. Going by his resume, this is another director whose work the average theatre buff in Lagos, if not in Nigeria should crave to see if not for all, but for one of the following reasons. Nick Monu was at a time in the recent past, one of Britain's most demanded young actors. He had been with the British National Theatre, the Royal Court and of course the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company. He had also acquired a stretch of experience with the Moscow Arts Theatre.
By the last day of production of Swamp Dwellers, I had seen three shows, all confirming and rebutting my perceptions of the position of the director; the place of the playwright in our national discourse; the attitude of the National Theatre/National Troupe to its productions; the quality of cast; the texture of interpretation and most importantly, the continuing relevance of the play as a potent post colonial treatise that is still capable of interpreting our current reality beyond issues even in the Niger Delta which the play ostensibly deals with. Mind you, none of these three shows was the command performance. I deliberately stayed away from that. The three shows I saw were actually after the command and the last was on the close of production.
On the three occasions that I saw this show, never was I offered a production brochure at the box office. A number of things could have been responsible for this. You sometimes get the feeling that the NTN is reluctant about doing some of the things it does. This feeling arises when you have course to interact with some of the personnel placed in charge of some of the activities. You ask for a production brochure after paying one thousand naira to see a play and you are told that they are meant for the command performance alone; you do not even get to leave with a small literature of additional information about the context of the play. The one I am using for the purpose of this review was obtained from a friend's library.
The production starred, back to back, some of the cast who made a success of Kurunmi in the hands of Ben Tomoloju. The challenge thus was to see them do again what endeared them to the critical audience that saw them in the previous production. I am not sure this was a challenge they lived up to. There are doubts also whether the management of the National Theatre, producers of the play has a full grasp of the kind of standard it bears and should protect. We would get to that later.
Some of the cast one had to watch out for were, Wole Macaulay, playing as Makuri; Albert Akaeze, playing as beggar (spelt begger in the brochure); Toriseju Ejoh, as Igwuezu; David Uba, as drummer/servant; Martins Iwuagwu as Kadiye; Titilayo Akinmoyo as Alu; and Okokon Nse as Flautist.
Apart from these players, there was also a strange clan of ten dancers from the National Troupe of Nigeria who found themselves into the beginning and end of the play. I am confused as to ascertaining whether their coming was as an apology for the length of the play for which the poor fee paying audience who were not circumspect enough had to cough out one thousand naira, or it was as an extended interpretation of the theme and concerns of the play.
Were it to be for the former, then the management of the theatre should know that had there been something of a full house on the days that the show held, there might have been a protest from a substantial number of the audience who felt swindled and ripped off. I actually overheard some members of the Lagos chapter of ANA wondering aloud after what was the curtain call at the end of one of the shows what just happened? They both agreed that they were yet to start understanding the play when it ended and actually joked about getting a refund. I could not agree with them more.
On the other hand, if the dancers had been in the show for the latter reason, then there is a strong need not only to question the quality of interpretation of the director but also to interrogate the process of evaluating directors for a National Troupe's job. In concept and execution, the opening and closing 'glee' were the greatest disservice to what might have passed as a worthwhile project. What could have been more damaging to the credibility of an intellectual effort than to see one of the dancers more devoted to the chewing gum in her mouth than the dance she was executing right there before the full glare of the audience.
If for any of the reasons of extending the duration of the play or exploring the thematic concern of the play, adding a dance or series of dances was necessary, there are more apt junctures in the play where dances that are interpretive of the mood and situation of the play could have been planted. What we had in this case was slovenly, lazy, unprofessional and unbecoming of a National Troupe of Nigeria's production.
The secret challenge I nurse in me is to one day see a set or light designer tell the story of the play in colours of paints, shades of light, sound of music and poetic set design that complements and accentuates the intended meaning of both playwright and director in an artistic synthesis. I see most often, barely functional technical designs even when there are open invitations for expressive interpretations. Either for lack of material or metal requirements, technical designs of our plays hardly excites one these days. Sometimes where the set attempts to live up to expectation, the light scheme and or cues take on a life of their own and come on and go off at will.
Where the lighting scheme in The Swamp Dwellers might not be worth writing anywhere about, the set in its design was daring and commendable. Credit for the set is given to Simone Nick. She was able to create a piece of installation for the audience to behold. The set alone was enough reason for me to say that the first one thousand naira I spent on the ticket was not a loss and, on each of the other two times I went back, the prospect of seeing it again was an easy excuse to endure other shortcomings in the production.
Off the script, the play is in a dialogue with the aspiration and reality of the nation. It speaks of debauchery and religious bigotry. It speaks of treachery and loss of basic African family values. It speaks, most importantly to me of the need to realise that each different cultural, social and economic component of the Nigerian state would achieve more, if it concentrates less on its deficiencies and devotes more time into how to creatively align with the others in order to tap from them what it lacks and which others have in abundance. The play suggests a magical alignment between the arid desert and the flooded swamp. It warns of a need to let the past and its failings be, while we focus more on the fruits of the future. All these I see in the situations given life to by the characters of the beggar, Igwuezu, Kadiye and of course, Makuri and Alu.
Unfortunately, I did not see all these in the production. I mean, I did not see any point of emphasis of all or any of the aforementioned. Thus, I will not be able to say categorically, what the thematic area of concentration of the play is. In all, it felt like a production in which the cast did not do enough work to interrogate their lines, characters and the situation in which they are in the play against one another in order to determine interpretation. You therefore have Macaulay in the character of Makuri, speaking with an Igbo accent, while the wife, Akinmoyo, speaks plain, unaccented English just like every other person in the play.
Again, while there is some attempt by Macaulay to speak and play an age that helps the audience understand the character of Makuri just a little, Akinmoyo was rather unconvincing either in carriage or speech. I am sure that she would not have been able to say by how many years her husband is older than her as she was just the same person you encounter at Ojuelegba in her jeans and possibly spaghetti top. This shows a lack of an understanding of the principle of give and take, action and reaction in the theatre, as you cannot effectively give back, in acting, if you do not know or understand, what you have been offered. I have no doubt that there would have been more life on stage had there been a better understanding of this principle.
In the curse of trying to satisfy my curiosity about my perception of the play, I encountered the work of a literary critic, teacher and Professor of Literature in his book, African Drama and the Yoruba World View. He says of some characters in the play: Alu and Makuri, landlocked in cosmic loneliness and futility look much nearer the grave than to life (26). As a mater of fact, Macaulay committed one of the most unforgivable of crimes on the stage when on the last day of performance, he came on wearing a gold chain; part of his own personal jewellery which he must have forgotten to remove in the cause of assuming the character of Makuri at the beginning of the play. All through that performance, I am sure the audience would have been distracted with the glittering shinning necklace on the neck of a character whose portrayal was at variance with every other thing in the play.
However, you cannot say the above for the character of the beggar as played by Albert Akaeze. You need not be told that he is blind when he comes on stage to know that his sight is impaired. His characterisation is one that justifies his inclusion in the cast and equally gives credence to his invaluable experience in the profession. But for a lack of team spirit, which may not be so obvious to the undiscerning, but which is there all the same, his efforts, just like others in the play too, would have come out more prominently.
As far as incongruities go, I think I also saw a bit of anachronism in the use of props where a 555 aluminium bowl, the type which just surfaced in the market in the past ten years or so, was on the set of a play set in pre-independent Nigeria. In my opinion, a calabash, if not an older aluminium bowl, would have helped the audience understand better the temporal setting of the play. A calabash would be more preferable because it shows that limited or lack of contact that the Makuris have with the approaching modernity.
In this performance, I saw things, images and suggestions that stood unconnected with other issues in the play. I saw and read things that made me seek the counsel of the original play text by Soyinka. I do not intend to substitute an impression of the written textual material I have since come to with the impression the textual performance had on me. No. But by going to this length, I have found out that there were deviations - unforgivable and inexplicable deviations. Note. There are provisions to deviate within accepted limited scope but such deviations must be consistent with an overall vision. This way one can be sure where either the director or the playwright has faltered or done well in representation and interpretation within the agreed philosophical, literary or artistic medium of realisation. I found this wanting in Swamp Dwellers. I do not know how many other productions have since taken place between the end of this play and now, but I hope someone else had spoken up on time to alert the management of our theatre about some, if not all of these critical points.