Joseph Babu Wairimu and Tash Mitambo were both brilliant last Sunday night at Kenya National Theatre’s Ukumbi Mdogo. They both gave a sterling two-hander performance of Scott Perry’s play, Bookends. But I confess: It was Babu who made me weep, so touching did I find his tragic portrait of Bill the old widower.
The story was such a poignant tale about loneliness and old age that it’s no wonder it was at times painful to watch. But there were also hilarious moments, as when they each took their turn dancing like teenagers as they reminisced on the past.
Two old men having nowhere to go apart from one park bench where they would meet regularly at 5pm. That meeting constituted the whole of their social life. It was also what they apparently both lived for up until that time.
And yet Babu’s character Bill clearly understood he needed more in life, especially when he found his friend Ron was unreliable. He’d absented him from their bench for three whole weeks without a word.
It didn’t matter that Ron had his reasons for being away. He’d been arrested for indecent exposure: he’d gotten caught dancing in the rain naked on Koinange Street, just to win a Ksh5,000 bet! After that, he’d been thrown into an old people’s home by his one son, but he’d escaped and had come back to find Bill back on the bench.
Their encounter that day had practically been coincidental since Bill had almost given up on Ron’s return after so many days had passed. In Ron’s absence, he’d decided to go back to Diani at the Coast in an attempt to retrieve a bit of his past.
Like a lost and lonely widower, he’d gone to the same hotel that he’d honeymooned in with his wife many years before. But the trip was futile and frustrating since he found everything had changed.
Faced with the stark feeling of loneliness and loss which was compounded by his friend’s new-found joy at meeting a cute young woman at the old people’s home, Bill finally succumbed to his grief.
His dying moments could have been morbid and depressing. But somehow, the contrast between Ron’s ebullient resilience and Bill’s gradual decline kept us transfixed in the final moments of the play. Were we really witnessing the old man’s end? There was that suspense up to the closing moment when Bill disappears and Ron seems to accept his friend’s demise.
It would seem that Ron is right in assessing the stubbornness of his friend. He felt Bill had ‘decided’ he was ill. It was implied that Bill had also decided to die.
As the two left their bench, supposedly for a pint at the bar, Bill stumbled off stage having apparently lost any reason to live. But Ron had also made up his mind, to live ‘a little longer’. He is still young at heart. He also has family and a new friend, which is apparently enough to give his life a semblance of meaning.
Bookends is really an ode to old age in a world where families have largely fallen apart, and many have forgotten to revere and cherish their elders, as people previously used to do.