What does an ideal husband look like?

DN Producer Mandu e

Igiza Arts Production producer Wreiner Mandu at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Igiza Arts’ ambitious production of Oscar Wilde’s stage play, ‘An Ideal Husband’ was over three hours long. But few in the audience seemed to mind.

That’s because we got so caught up in the intrigue, the surprises and disclosures, that anyone with even a speck of curiosity would want to know what would come up next. Whose scandals would be revealed next?

What was also appealing about Igiza’s play, staged this past weekend at the Kenya National Theatre’ Ukumbi Mdogo was the lively cast and the crisp language of this late 19th century play which was effectively adapted to a present-day Nairobi (although lacking in Sheng and Swahili). It was the show’s director, who kept his youthful cast on their toes and also adapted Wilde’s language so it didn’t sound either too arcane or Edwardian. Instead, it felt attuned to our sensibilities, apart from one line about how ‘Men are more important than women.’ Many men and some women still believe it’s true, but ironically, in this play, it’s the women who are stronger.

The toughest, most diabolical one is Mrs Manda (Edna Kariuki is a brilliant villain). She is an unscrupulous schemer and brazen blackmailer, out to do a dirty deal with the senior politician, Cabinet Secretary Robert (Jeff Obonyo). The woman who’s the most rock-solid supportive of her husband, Robert, is Gertrude (Evelyn Kiragu). She sees him as a paragon of principle, an ‘ideal husband’ who’s unquestionably a man of honour and integrity. But her image of him is shattered when she learns the secret that Robert has kept to himself all these years.

And then there’s Gertrude and Robert’s daughter Mabel (Linda Kamuri) who is also adamant about love and won’t be deterred from getting her man, Gori (Harold Kelly) although she plays coy to enhance his interest in the lovers’ games they play.

But actually, gender relations are just one of the issues running through An Ideal Husband. Scandals, blackmail, and political corruption are also critical topics that are central to the storyline. But so is Oscar Wilde’s concern for the antithetical issues of morality and hypocrisy.

The main story revolves around CS Robert who is regarded as an exceptional man of integrity who has never been publicly (or privately) associated with corrupt practices of any kind. But his ethical façade is about to be shattered with the arrival from Uganda of the Kenya-born Mrs Manda.

She has come to see Robert during a dinner party that he and his wife are hosting. But Mrs Manda doesn’t give a thought to her being intrusive. She’s beautiful and used to getting her way. She has a scheme regarding the extension of the standard gauge railway (SGR) to Uganda and wants Robert to be in on her plan. And if he refuses, then the issue of blackmail arises.

But Robert has already taken a public stand against this scheme. He has even opened an investigation into the details of it. Mrs Manda wants him to shut down those investigations, but he says, ‘no way’. But then she tells him she knows his secret. The mental wrestling between them is suspenseful because he remembers his ‘original sin’, his criminal act done during his early service in government.

He’d stolen government documents related to the SGR. Passing them on to a guy who made tens of billions off the documents and gave one billion to Robert who admits to his good friend Gori that this single deed gave him his wealth. He’d come from an impoverished background and so has been able to justify his theft to himself.

But he had never told anyone before until now. He also told Gori that Mrs Manda plans to blackmail him unless he does her bidding so he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Torn between truth-telling or continuing to cover up his single dirty deed, he’s in trouble. He knows his wife will be crushed at the news of his dishonesty, and indeed she is. But then, she has her secret which Mrs Manda has discovered and uses to challenge her unforgiving stance towards her spouse.

Ultimately, everyone is implicated in some aspect of “sin”, whether it is theft, infidelity, political corruption, lack of compassion, or dishonesty, including in the way people hypocritically keep secrets even from those they love. Wilde and Igiza are finally concerned with issues of morality, including honour, integrity, and the unattainable goal of being an ‘ideal’ human being.

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