It has been decades now since comedy performances claimed centre stage around the Caribbean to the point where there was a worry for the survival of drama of classical, tragic, serious commentary, experimental, artistic or a more challenging type. The popular play commanded the box office and became standard fare. Producers avoided other types, or expected box office losses when they offered them. The roots play with the increasing slapstick attraction did also experience interesting forms evolving within it.
While the farce increased to sometimes grotesque proportions, it did not cause a cessation of more socially engaging or intellectually interrogating drama. These continued under threat and during the past 10 years a number of them persisted, such as Thom Cross’s The Final Truth? (Barbados), Not About Eve and Basil Dawkins’s Uptown Bangarang in Jamaica, Richard Raghubarsingh’s Mary Could Dance and Rawle Gibbons’s theatre in Trinidad, and even Derek Walcott.
Additionally, the popular play was also maturing and exerting significant influence upon what took place on the so-called ‘serious’ stage. Influence was moving in two directions. The popular play was exhibiting a social conscience, while drawing on old theatrical traditions. It was no longer a dilemma of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theatre, but an interesting exhibition of what one form was doing to the other.
In Guyana, Snapped, written and directed by Darren McAlmont and produced by him through his Bean Entertainment Productions, was a fair example of current drama. Guyana was inundated by comic plays which were certainly the only ones with any chance of selling tickets for a long time. Then these were actually overtaken by the growing and overwhelming popularity of stand-up comedy and touring comic shows. But then local playwrights, many of them very new, began to take on the angst of a troubled society and actually hold audience interest. They also ensured that an element of dramatic or theatrical sensationalism was included in surprise endings and twists of plot.
Snapped encompasses all of these, unfortunately, for the worse. Quite encouragingly, it took on the grave issue of domestic violence that is a current plague in Guyanese society. A number of recent plays have driven an awareness of this scourge and virtually advocated resistance, and the same thing was done in Snapped. It echoes the concerns of Front Yard by Jennifer Thomas (Mariatha Causway) and Til Death by Tashaundra Innis. But those were better plays.
Snapped further benefited from a truly ‘star-studded’ cast. Sonia Yarde played a cowed wife living in fear under the domination of a cynical calculating and violent bully of a husband played by Henry Rodney. Nathaya Whaul played her sister who was willing to stand up and confront him, and she had support from the bold, aggressive and unflinching neighbour Clemencio Godette and aunt played by Nichola Moonsammy. There was also Mark Kazim as the sister’s boyfriend, while prominent singer Charmaine Blackman performed a song to round out a dream cast. Melissa King was the abused and frightened daughter while Gerard Gilkes, Clement Stanford and Latoya Kellman played smaller roles.
A question arose as to the type of play that this was, since it gave the impression of promising laughs and sensation in its public advertisements. On the contrary it dealt with grave social ills and issues, but it did attempt the grand dramatic twist and the shock ending. It also promised to be a melodrama. So it was a mixture of types, but perhaps one can say, with apologies to Shakespeare, that it came closest to being a Comedy of Errors.
It was earlier said that this production “benefited” from a star-spangled cast, but more truthfully, benefits were few; the spirit of the acting was overridden by other factors and contrarily, the prominent ‘stars’ in the cast may well be advised to choose their roles and productions more carefully. They did themselves no favours in this one, nor did they cause it to soar with the galaxy.
Darren McAlmont is a relative newcomer and it might not have been the most sagacious decision to write, produce and direct his first play and production. McAlmont quite correctly writes in his Director’s Notes that “the road to success is never easy.” He should take counsel from that. Success requires training and learning, and a bit of preparation would not hurt. Both Rodney and Yarde had to perform a script that was very repetitious and moved practically nowhere for almost the entire first act. Many high dramatic moments and twists in the plot erupted in Act Two, culminating with the dramatic high-point in the double shock at the end.
Some of these dramatic moments were not bad as this kind of plot goes, but few of them worked well because of flaws in the writing, the directing and the production. They brought the acting down with them. Very often there was the climax of a scene at the end (no problem there), but it hardly ever sharply ended when it should, there was always a softening with unnecessary additional words or a pause before the lights went out, leaving instead of a bombshell, a damp squib. There were several of these examples of poor execution in the delivery of an already flawed script – the timing was way off, they were badly directed, and were not supported by technical elements because they were faulty, such as lighting.
The play was social realism. It was neither experimental, poetic nor post-modern, yet it attempted the use of surreal techniques within a very realistic frame. It is not that such attempts are not possible, but these did not work because they did not fit and were badly done. For example there were many soliloquies in which characters told the audience their thoughts and intentions in undramatic fashion. Charmaine Blackman walked in to sing a song which had some thematic relevance to the drama while the lead actors mimed a sequence, but despite the dynamism of the rendition, it was awkward rather than dramatic. Attempts to use lighting to effect also fell short for want of precision and proper timing.
Furthermore, there were other flaws. The audience was left to try to decide whether the wife and her daughter were in mortal fear of her husband or whether they were given to standing up to him; that fluctuated. Then the play led us to expect something to come out of the loud and fearless resistance of the aunt and neighbour, but all that bravado fizzled out and there was a very limp dramatic outcome. They seemed surprisingly powerless to avert what happened in the end.
Much of this, however, delighted an audience which came to the auditorium determined to enjoy themselves. They found amusement out of the play’s most tragic and dramatic moments, and heckled loudly, talking back to the actors with unhelpful running commentary. A very brief footnote on this will observe that it goes back to an important factor in the actor-audience relationships in traditional Caribbean performance in which audience talk-back and actors engaging them are parts of an important element of audience interaction. This is, however, a disruptive consequence of the way that tradition has turned out among the contemporary Guyanese audience.
This play seemed to be in want of better direction, proper rehearsal, more efficient management of technical support, more inspiring dialogue and a stronger script. The production snapped under the weight of those issues.