There are stage productions, and then, there are stage readings, which only include the actors and the script. Readings are part of a larger creative process leading to what will become a full-scale production.
When you get brilliant actors reading an equally outstanding script that has actually been staged once or twice already, the Reading can become a classic moment when the soul of the play comes to light.
It leaves one wondering why more scripts do not undergo public ‘readings’, especially if it is done as Readings producer Esther Kamba did last Friday night when she invited her audience to stay after the show and speak to the playwright of Matchstick Man, Martin Kigondu.
In the reading of his script, Sam Psenjin and Nick Ndeda gave much more than a simple read-through of a script that may soon become a film.
It was upstairs at the Kenya Cultural Centre that the actors (two of Nairobi’s finest) took the plunge into the depths of Kigondu’s mentally fractured characters to give fascinating performances.
Initially, it is not easy to figure out who is the patient and who is the therapist in what we gradually realise is a mental asylum.
Both Seth (Psenjin) and Fatili (Ndeda) are flawed.
At the same time, both have moments when they are lucid and able to behave like professional shrinks, psychiatric workers challenging the other to get down deep into the recesses of the other’s mind.
Be assured, Matchstick Men is no comedy although there is an undercurrent of wit starting with the way the actual patient, Seth, puts on the doctor’s white medical jacket and behaves as if the jacket makes him that man.
But the psychological games that Seth plays frustrate Fatili at the outset.
It is understandable that during the ‘Q and A’ that followed the readings, more than one inquisitor in the audience hadn’t found Kigondu’s characters the easiest to understand.
Fortunately, Martin was on hand to explain how he’d wanted to explore issues of mental health in his play.
But that required the portrayal of one character, Seth, who was mentally imbalanced, to be reached through the mental touch of another equally flawed character.
In fact, both men had effectively blocked memories of events in their lives that had been traumatising.
So much so that Seth did not recall that he was effectively responsible for his father’s death.
As a child he had watched his father turn his mother into “a punching bag”, but one day it was too much and the little boy pushed his dad down a long flight of stairs, at the bottom of which the old man was found dead.
He was never seen as culpable since his mother swore it was suicide.
But his father’s death is apparently what led to his amnesia about everything associated with that event.
Ultimately, we find out that Fatili had understood the mental blockages in Seth’s mind and felt the truth needed to be exposed so Seth could regain control over his life.
But before that epiphany takes place, we learn that Seth and Fatili are somehow related.
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It’s because Fatili had fallen in love with Seth’s ‘crazy’ sister with whom he had a child. It’s not quite clear what happened to the sister, although she was with Fatili for four years and these were frustrating times for him.
So much so that he apparently had beaten her bloody and the court thus denied him access to their child.
This distressed him a great deal. But he too had blocked the memory of his deeds of domestic violence which were also brought out in the play.
Ultimately, Fatili does a full disclosure, first of his identity.
He’s a psychiatrist who intentionally concealed his professional identity from Seth for weeks.
What’s more, he had wanted to heal Seth by helping him break through his mental blocks and face the realities of his history.
His motives were not entirely altruistic, however. He admits he has only one means to regain access to his child.
That is to have one member of his wife to sign documents that will confirm his paternity. That one is Seth.
In the end, Fatili gets back both Seth and his child, so the reading ends on a relatively happy note, which resolves loose ends but doesn’t quite satisfy.
In any case, one must applaud Kigondu for interweaving several moments in post-independent history, such as the 1982 coup plot and 2007 post-election violence as factors contributing to Kenyans’ mental health or lack thereof.