France’s Shakespeare arrives in Nairobi after 400 years

Cast members of Moliere, acomedy, mock the Captain (Sam Psenjen) in a theatre rehearsal at Alliance Francaise, in Nairobi on August 23, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born exactly 400 years ago this year. It took a bit of time before he took up his stage name, Moliere, only to become the leading playwright, actor, and poet the French have ever claimed.

Seen as the French equivalent (or superior) to England’s Shakespeare, Moliere is being celebrated all over France this year, according to the Alliance Francaise (AF) director, Charles Courdent.

Speaking to the Business Daily just as Kenya’s rehearsals began for one of Moliere’s most popular comedies, The Miser or L’Avare, Charles says children from the age of 10 are reading Moliere plays under normal circumstances. But this year especially plays like Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and L’Avare are being staged from Nice to Paris to Calais.

Yet as much as the French adore Moliere, few Kenyans have ever heard of the playwright. Neither have they ever seen a performance of any of his plays, that is, unless they have taken part in French Schools Drama Festivals which I believe have been happening for many years.

That makes it a big challenge for the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio (NPAS) which was invited to stage The Miser in September to ensure their Moliere is recognised and appreciated just as The British Council supports Shakespeare’s plays around Kenya.

“My first concern was to find a Kenyan actor who could help us adapt the French language [which is, after 400 years, slightly archaic] to language that is relevant to Kenyans,” says Stuart Nash, who accepted Harsita Waters’ request that he take up the challenge.

“He also needed to be more mature [meaning not in his 20’s or even 30’s],” says Stuart who is delighted to have found Sam Psenjen had a bit of time in his busy schedule of filming TV sitcoms and Kenyan films to play the leading role of the Miser.

Stuart was even prepared to adjust the whole cast’s rehearsal schedule to meet Sam’s alterations which at times important were unforeseen. But for Stuart, it was to have Sam on hand since the Miser, General Makasi rarely departs from this multi-scene play which the company transformed into two acts.

“We also injected a bit of sheng, French, English, and American slang,” Stuart adds. And while he is aware that the AF director might wince at some of the ways the cast has revised the text, turning the arcane English (adapted literally from the equally arcane French) into a language that local audiences could hear, Stuart is going with the risk.

“What else can we do? We don’t want to dumb down the language too much but we want it to make some sense,” he adds.

The plot itself is not complicated. Nor is it at all alien to the Kenyan scene where polygamy is still practiced and the conscious public is still trying to fight child marriage.

In The Miser’s case, he wants to marry a youngster, Maryanne, (played by Suzanne Karani) who is actually in love with General Makasi’s (Sam Psenjen) son, Harrison (Amani Mwasera) who also loves the girl.

But there is also a conniving matchmaker, Mademoiselle de Venus (played by Angel Waruinge), a nosy Detective (Dru Muthure), and Ian Mbugua who gives a cameo performance as Bwana Simon to tie up all the loose ends.

At this stage, the NPAS/AF script of The Miser is still being reworked and revised to give it more punchy fun and clarity as to what an autocratic head of state is capable of doing.

What’s so startling about Moliere is that in nearly every one of his plays, he mocks the nouveau riche (new rich and powerful).

He also lampoons those with any sense of superiority, be they a royal, a rich businessman, a church leader, or whomever he perceives to be a hypocrite, which he has a knack for identifying. All of those guys got burned by Moliere in his plays. Yet that never stopped the literary leaders of France from embracing the playwright.

He was attacked in 1664 by the Roman Catholic church for the accusations he made in his satirical play, Tartuffe, which was filled with not-so-subtle slams at the hypocrisy of church elders and the gullibility of the wealthy who fell for the con-man, Tartuffe’s pseudo-piety.

The satire was quickly attacked and censored; then it was banned and burned by the Church which took the power of theatre performance seriously. Tartuffe has ultimately been hailed as a masterpiece, but the Church never forgave the playwright.

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