Kenyan version of Anouilth’s ‘Antigone’ staged in Nairobi

Antigone 1

A scene during the premiere of the Kenyan version of Antigone by Jean Anouilh. PHOTO | POOL

It was a powerhouse of performances last Friday night, March 8, at the premiere of the Kenyan version of Antigone by Jean Anouilh and staged by the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio in conjunction with Alliance Francaise.

Antigone was selected specially by Alliance Francaise’s director Charles Courdent in light of International Women’s Day when the two leads would be women, one Lorna Lemi who plays the title role and her nemesis, President Coron played by Wakio Mzenge. The two would face off as two strong women convinced of their purpose and principle. Antigone, following the Greek tragedy, was determined to bury her brother Polycarp rather than allow the State to deem him the ‘devil’ and leave him to rot or to be eaten by wild dogs.

Meanwhile, Coron struggled to establish a semblance of peace after riots had broken out in Nairobi’s city centre. They’d followed after the two brothers killed one another in a bloody battle for power, leaving it finally to their sister, Coron, to take up the leadership and power that both men had fought and died for.

But to get a bit more background on the play, Antigone was first scripted by Sophocles nearly 1450 years ago in 400 BC as one of three Greek tragedies by the philosopher-dramatist. It wasn’t until 1941 that Jean Anouilh translated and adapted the play into French.

And after that, it was seriously revised, adapted, and translated into Kenyan English by Gadwill Odhiambo, who also plays Herman, Antigone’s adoring fiancé.

In the original, Antigone is destined to bury her brother for his soul to rest in peace. It’s also true in the Kenyan version, only I wonder if any other actress who played Antigone had as much fervent passion as Lorna did. Hers was only matched by Wakio’s Head of State who is prepared to cover up Antigone’s crime rather than lose her son’s future wife whom he adores.

What makes the original Antigone all the more poignant is that her father King Oedipus slaughtered his father and then wedded Oepidus’s wife who turns out to be his mother. Long story, but once he discovers what he has done, gouges out his eyes in his own form of punishment and self-sacrifice.

In the Kenyan version of the play, Antigone is also prepared to make a major sacrifice despite knowing she is violating the rule of law that Coron is normally very principled in sticking to. She is counselled by her sister Semene (Faith Kibathi) not to do it and questioned strenuously by her Auntie (Scarlet Sakwe) after finding her in the wee hours of the night walking from the freshly dug grave.

But Antigone feels she’s fulfilling her destiny. It‘s her fate not to marry Herman. It is also her fate to die, despite the President’s preparedness to sacrifice her principles just to keep Antigone alive.

In the Kenyan version of the play, Antigone’s two brothers both wanted their father’s presidency after Oedipus died without a will. They are prepared to go to war to do a ‘winner-take-all’ and win the throne. Fortunately, they can reconcile long enough to make a deal. They will rotate the office every four years. Unfortunately, Eugene refuses to relinquish power four years later.

That nearly leads to a civil war, which almost starts. But as the brothers both die, Corom comes to power and then, in an attempt to waylay any more instability, calls Eugene a hero and Polycarp a devil deserving nothing more than death and leaving his corpse to rot and for the vultures to munch. That is how Antigone comes on the scene, feeling it’s her destiny to bury her brother Polycarp.

Fortunately, Dru Muthure as the Narrator of the play is included in the Kenyan script which is co-directed by Stuart Nash and Wakio Mzenge who came on stage after the premiere performance and final bows to admit it was a challenge being both co-director and co-leading lady. It was only her second time directing.

For the first, she scripted, directed, and also starred in her play. But back at her Ujumbe premiere, she admitted she loved directing and hoped to do more of it. The directing of Antigone was superb as was the set design by Shadrick Nduati who also painted backdrops for Antigone as well as for two other plays Alliance co-produced with NPAS, namely Mstinji, or The Miser, originally written by France’s leading playwright, Moliere and Sirano wa Begeraki or Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.