By Al Creighton’s
But Naughton Henry was very much determined to exploit whatever other devices he could to appeal to a popular audience. The play, therefore, ended up not as a thoroughbred, but as a mixture of types and textures in order to achieve that end
In looking at recent dramatic productions in Guyana it was possible to compare their relative success according to the response of the audiences. It was interesting to allow audience behaviour to be the main criterion
The first play for the new year was a repeat performance of one of the last done in 2008, brought back to test the audience once more in a bid for further benefit from the box office. No Tricks No Business written and directed by Godfrey Naughton Henry returned to the Cultural Centre with very minor modification. As is the custom, it was designed with the popular audience in mind and this was obvious from its mixture of types, devices and characteristics.
This drama is first of all a comedy in the strictest sense of that theatrical type. It sets out to comment on topical and problematic social and human situations by way of placing its characters in difficulties and dilemmas. There are conflicts and complexities, mistaken identities leading to serious misunderstandings and potential danger of one sort or another. But, as in the classical comedy, near tragedy is averted, errant characters are positively redirected, if not reformed, circumstances switch favourably, some truth is revealed and the ending is satisfactory and generally happy for the main characters.
This is the main block of the dramatic material. But Naughton Henry was very much determined to exploit whatever other devices he could to appeal to a popular audience. The play, therefore, ended up not as a thoroughbred, but as a mixture of types and textures in order to achieve that end. It provoked audience laughter and intrigue with several comic ingredients including farce, slapstick and several topical references aimed straight at immediate mass consumption. Normally, fussing about typology is only of interest to critics, and neither writers nor audiences care anything about it, even though it is always important to both what kind of play it is. The audience will only turn up to see it if it is the kind of play they think they will like, and most popular playwrights will try to produce what he thinks they will like. Without doubt that is what Naughton did on this occasion. No Tricks No Business is typical popular Guyanese theatre aimed at its audience, and the audience reactions could tell pretty accurately how well, or otherwise, it worked.
This play’s starting point is a sort of macabre phenomenon in Georgetown in which the public hospital becomes overrun by touts aggressively rooting for business on behalf of funeral homes. Although shocking, ghoulish and distasteful, it was never among the important social issues and not large enough to sustain anything more than light amusement in drama. Yet Naughton tries to create a play out of a nuisance of minor topical interest by linking it to a more important human situation, thus sustaining interest throughout the drama.
At the centre is a competent and dedicated nurse (Sonia Yarde) determined to build her own home while struggling to educate and protect her teenage daughter (Oceanna Hoppie) against a depraved neighbourhood environment, low wages and an intemperate semi-literate husband (Godfrey Naughton Henry) who earns nothing and fails in his responsibilities and contributions to the home. She confronts the situation with the funeral touts at the hospital and seems to play some part in bringing it under control, (it is not quite clear in the play), but seizes the opportunity to replace them with her own services in order to gain extra money to build her house. At work she forms curious alliances with three patients in the male ward (Lynden Jones, Michael Young, Michael Ignatius) and another nurse (Nicola Moonsammy).
Naughton manages to make something of dramatic interest out of the lightweight issue of the ghoulish touts at the hospital in the way he hinges it upon themes of greater importance. Much is made out of the fact that Nurse Davidson is a poorly paid civil servant with a marketable professional skill that is in demand but who chooses to remain at home to serve family and country. The conflict between her patriotism and her illegitimate operations arises. But two things happen which will go down as reasonable achievements of the play. Her genuine efforts to keep her home together against the odds are convincing and successfully handled, largely because of the commanding performance of Sonia Yarde. The second factor here is the way the sub-plots involving the three patients bring out a sense of bonding, friendship, loyalty and humanity.
Nurse Davidson’s domestic and professional worlds collide as she grapples with finances, her neighbours, a jealous husband, her daughter’s welfare and the threat to her job posed by her own clandestine dealings with funeral establishments. In addition, her personal relations with her friend and colleague Nurse Francis are tested by the aggressive and unwanted attentions of a Nigerian doctor who is a Resident at the hospital. These all lead to complications, mistaken or hidden identities, misunderstandings and a chaotic, potentially tragic situation. Bonds of friendship, quick thinking, the alliance and support of the patients and some good luck come to her rescue in the end; characters find love and helpful resolutions. There is where the play takes on the characteristics of the conventional comedy.
Thereafter the success of the production is challenged by its other popular interests and some unfinished, unpolished work. Although items of human interest arise from it, this camaraderie in the ward among patients and between them and the nurses seemed a bit manufactured and fairy tale-like. We learn about Nurse Davidson’s patriotic dedication and her good work in the hospital from someone saying it and repeating it rather than from any dramatic action. In theatre, as in literature, there is an idiom, “don’t tell me, show me.” Davidson’s irate husband storms into the ward and creates havoc leaving destruction and injured patients in his wake, and it all passes without repercussions or consequences that affect the plot in any way shown by the play. What happens to him at the end leaves a feeling of something unfinished and unresolved – an unsatisfactory note in the ending of a comedy.
Other notes of interest come from the drive to attract and entertain the audience. While Ignatius, Young and Jones play their roles reasonably well and manage comic timing effectively, they are also put through a good deal of slapstick, mixing the comedy with low farce. The style of playing, too, as well as some of the dramatic action, gave the impression that it was a psychiatric rather than a medical ward. As the plot revealed, nothing was really wrong with one of the men, but despite their serious illness, the other two were amazingly robust and energetic in their many physical acrobatics demanded by the slapstick humour.
It was those same demands that introduced some blemish to Naughton’s otherwise strong acting as the ‘ignorant’ Mr Davidson, a character role in which he has been type-cast several times in theatre. He had enough command of stage to bring it off, but had a tendency to shout when subtlety might have worked. The drama between mother and daughter worked and neither Oceanna Hoppie nor Yarde were required to give comic performance. But Yarde was equally proficient with laughter as was required in her dramatic confrontation with Nurse Francis and she managed that scene very effectively with Nicola Moonsammy.
The overall intention of No Tricks No Business was to please a popular audience interested in farce, and what was their verdict? Given their tendency to wring a laugh from anywhere, it was an achievement of the play that in spite of Moonsammy’s over-theatric comic playing of it, the audience understood her emotional plight when she broke down at the end of the confrontation with Yarde, and did not laugh. They made their usual acts of talking back to the actors but in reasonably good fun, except when they were interrupting the dialogue.
But the play had enough good one-liners and humour of its own; the audience took delight in those and did not have to resort to their own amusement. Many of the comments seemed to evoke their empathy with plot and character, a good thing for a play seeking communion with its audience.