Makantali: An important production

Arts On Sunday

The recent staging of the Harold Bascom drama Makantali by The Theatre Guild was an extremely important production. It was the presentation to the public of a major play by a notable contemporary Guyanese writer in a series of efforts by the resuscitated Theatre Guild to resume the staging of prominent plays of merit at the Playhouse.  In what has been a fairly successful series of occasional productions, this most recent effort reached historic heights, since it was the première of Makantali, a very significant Guyanese play.

What increases the importance is that it was also the first time that any play that has won the Guyana Prize for Literature has ever been staged.  For that reason the Guyana Prize supported the production.

Harold A Bascom, now resident in the USA, is a very significant Guyanese dramatist and novelist.  He was not only associated with the rise of local Guyanese theatre in the 1980s, but was a major mover in that advancement when popular plays emerged on the local stage, starting a cultural industry and effectively popularising theatre among a much wider and more varied audience in the country.

Bascom produced a number of ‘mirror plays’ treating local topical issues at the grassroots level of social interaction that had great popular appeal such as The Barrel, Family Budget, Visa Wedding.

He was also associated with the Guyana Prize since the beginning of his literary career. His first novel Apata (Heinemann, 1986),  was shortlisted for the first Guyana Prize in 1987 and he then went on to win the prize twice, with Two Wrongs (1994) and Makantali (1996).

They treat important national issues since Two Wrongs explores the then hidden factor of external agents in the violent race conflicts in the 1960s in Guyana in a tragic drama of race relations.  Makantali moves into an area that has also interested other writers.

Jan Carew fictionalized the legend/history of the great pork-knocker Ocean Shark, famed for his rise and fall, riches and extravagance.  Barrington Braithwaite published his Illustrated History of the Pork-knockers in 2010, supported by the Geology and Mines Commission, giving a positive outlook in its narrative of a productive industry.

Bascom somehow combines the two, documenting the notorious reputations of ostentatious, wasteful prospectors and their women of the bush, while pointing to their humanity and capacity for positiveness and progress.  He creates a drama of redemption, of rescue and reconstruction out of ruin; salvation out of a legendary and mythical reputation of waste and desertion.

Makantali is an extremely strong play.  This came out in what emerged on stage; what was done by a team which included many newcomers and debutants directed by veteran Guild member Malcolm de Freitas. It was hard work by all and a courageous effort by De Freitas in taking on the first staging of a challenging play which is so important to Guyanese drama that no one would want to spoil it, and they must be congratulated for what was achieved.  It turned out a flawed but very workable production, a clear, competent staging which made a very complex play easy to follow.

Much of this was achieved, not only because the Guild production team and actors despite their limitations seemed undaunted by the task, but because of the outstanding strength of Bascom’s script.  It is a major work of art and well-crafted theatre, existing at different levels of realism and spirituality.  It is based on the local folklore, myth, legend and/or history of a pork-knocker known as Makantali, whose real name is Jonathan Barker in this play.  He is immortalised in the folk song “Makantali money done in de country / Makantali money done hey.”  Braithwaite’s history reveals another version of both the folklore and the folk song in which his name is ‘Bakandali.’

In Bascom’s plot Barker (Gerald Gilkes) is moved to go into the bush to earn in order to support his wife Lilian (Narthaya Whaul) and son and to escape from hostile in-laws bent on emasculating him.

He strikes gold and sends a considerable fortune home to his family, but does not return.  He becomes obsessed with the seductive, siren-like prostitute Esme, the femme fatale of the drama (Colleen Humphrey) and squanders a fortune, thus condemning himself to a life in the bush continually seeking to regain it.  The play presents the spirit of Makantali in a kind of Purgatory, with a mission to save his own soul by saving others.

His task is to save at least one present-day pork-knocker from repeating the notorious pattern of pork-knockers – the abandonment of their families on the coast and the wasteful squandering of fortunes made from rich gold and diamond strikes.

Makantali’s chance for salvation and fulfilment is to appear in a dream to one of these prospectors, leading him to the large haul of gold that he had found and hidden away.  But it also depended on the will of the man who receives it.  If he was influenced to turn away from the lures of the bush and return with his fortune intact to his family on the coast, Makantali would find rest and peace.

He chooses McFarlane (Randolph Critchlow) who seems about to relive all Makantali’s past mistakes.  He is obsessed with the fickle, foolish and irresolute Elsa (Nirmala Narine) for whom he is prepared to leave his girlfriend and child in Georgetown.

But he is saved by the dream and Makantali’s spiritual influence as well as his own good sense and the encouragement of his friends.  He returns to those faithful to him on the coast, not only reconstructing his own life, but causing the fabled, restless spirit of Makantali to find fulfilment and catharsis.

De Freitas’s production effectively communicates this plot to the audience. But Bascom’s story is also narrated in the spirit world by a former boatman, Captain Bob, who tells the story to another, Newman, aided by a Spirit Chorus.  The spiritual elements were somewhat de-emphasised and not appropriately handled in this production.  Much of the artistry, the poetic and choreographic quality in the play was thus lost.

Although the plot was made clear, one very functional theatrical dimension was removed.  What was left was the fairly linear presentation of the levels of realism.  The spirit chorus did not fulfil their choric role.

Yet art remained in the costuming, some aspects of the set which recreated quite effectively a feel of life in the fabled ‘bush,’ and some cases of good acting.  Both Gerald Gilkes and Nathaya Whaul bring life to the drama in their confident play of the lead roles, while Randolph Critchlow and Nirmala Narine supported very well in convincing characterisations.  Shellon Madray brought the right blend of sensuality and outrageousness as the Sisyphean whore who seemed to be living out a curse which condemned her to a life soliciting on the landing.

There was comic effectiveness in the choric role of a very minor character, the drunken singer and guitar-player, such as he was, precisely played by Leon Cummings.  The scenes in the shop on the landing were also enlivened by believable portrayals of the men who work there by Dason McKenzie, Avery Grant and Kwasi Edmondson.

Even the balance achieved in the telling of the stories of the well-talked-about pork-knockers was notable.  There were ironic contrasts between the presentation of the rumours and sensational exaggerations spread abroad and the showing of what actually happened.

This emphasised the play’s interest in false stories held up against truth.  The truth of the humanity of the men known for their exploits in the interior and the people around them was satisfactorily dramatised in a play enhanced by comic elements and serious reflective sequences.

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