KCSE set books get extreme makeover at National Theatre

Maina Olwenya and Amwoma Mboga deal with an uncooperative Matt Stannah  in  ‘A Man Like You.’ PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Maina Olwenya and Amwoma Mboga deal with an uncooperative Matt Stannah in ‘A Man Like You.’ PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

The staging of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination set books will never be the same now that Nairobi Performing Arts Studio (NPAS) decided to produce Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and Pauline Kea’s Kigogo for students.

NPAS’s two plays opened this past Wednesday and will run through next Thursday, performing for free for students whose schools can get them to the National Theatre.

“I think quite a few of these children have never been to the theatre before,” says NPAS founder and artistic director Stuart Nash.

“We’re staging the shows for free in Nairobi to schools that have had less exposure to theatre,” he adds, acknowledging that the Studio is covering the costs which can’t be small since the cast of both plays is substantial and the theatre itself comes at a price.

Fortunately, NPAS has a deal with Kenya Cultural Centre to stage the plays at the theatre in exchange for three significant productions annually. What’s more, most of the cast members are NPAS’ students, thus confirming that their drama lecturer (Mr Nash), the former West End of London actor-director-composer, is also an outstanding producer-director. Both plays are often taken around to schools and staged by amateur companies. But there’s no comparison between the NPAS productions and others.

For one thing, Mr Nash auditioned some of Nairobi’s best actors and found Elsaphan Njora (Kati Kati) the perfect fit to play Azdak, the judge who creates the chalk circle test as a way of finding out who’s the true mother of the baby boy Michael (played by four-month old Prince Perde).

Michael gets carelessly left behind by his biological mother (Stella Nyambura) as she flees from a military coup that’s bent on destroying her husband, the governor and his claim to power.

The baby is left with Grusha (Nyokabi Macharia), a lovely peasant girl (who has the most gorgeous a cappella voice) who’s betrothed to soldier Simon (Chika Amo).

But as Simon must leave her to go off to war, she ends up adopting the child and eventually must be judged by Azdak to determine if she or his biological mother is the real mother.

Besides having a marvellous (and massive) cast, including a captivating Storyteller (Fanuel Mulwa) who pops up all around the theatre (both on and off the stage) injecting incisive titbits to the story, Mr Nash has utilised the entire theatre for the dramatisation of Brecht’s brilliant play, a work which exquisitely illustrates the way politics and art can be fused together without damaging the artistry or being so didactic as to turn audiences off. For instance, in the opening moments of the play, the government’s spokesman speaks to peasants on stage from the balcony. That’s also where Grusha and Michael climb aboard “the bridge”, a tall metallic scaffold which gets rolled down the auditorium’s centre aisle to the stage where she and the baby leap onto “dry land”.

And when the coup is underway, the peasantry run helter skelter up and down auditorium aisles, startling but delighting students who’ve never seen a play like this before.

The staging is most memorable, but so are Grusha’s songs and Azdak’s outlandish style of passing judgment. It’s a show that not only students but all theatre lovers need to go and see.

Meanwhile, last night Silvia Cassini staged A Man Like You at the Radisson Blu Hotel at the invitation of a private security firm that appreciates theatre, particularly Ms Cassini’s dramatic script about an intimate interchange between Abdi, a Somali so-called terrorist (Maina Olywena) and the British diplomat, Patrick North who Abdi and his colleague Hassan (Amwoma Mboga) have kidnapped.

The production has intrigued audiences all the way from Nairobi, Harare and Cape Town to New York and Hong Kong. Each time Ms Cassini does it she’s directed a slightly different cast. Davina Leonard as North’s long-suffering wife and Amwoma as the Somali who doesn’t “make nice” with North, are the two constants in the show.

But this time round, it’s the New York-based, Kenya-born actor Matt Stannah who plays North as he did when the show was staged off-Broadway last year. And Maina Olywena returns as Abdi, the Somali who shares the perspective that the British, not his people, are the true terrorists.

Martin Kigondu also brought What Happens in the Night back on stage, this time to Braeburn Theatre last weekend, starring Nick Ndeda, Marrianne Nungo, Bilal Mwaura, Shiviske Shivisi and Salim Gitau.

Finally, Zippy Okoth is directing Contract Love on June 1st and 2nd at Kenya National Theatre.