We are reminded that The Tides of Susan-burg by distinguished Guyanese dramatist Francis Quamina Farrier is a history-making drama. It was Guyana’s first local ‘soap opera’ created when radio executive Rafiq Khan suggested to Farrier that there should be a local full-length radio serial drama which he would broadcast on Radio Demerara. From all reports it was a popular success, prompting rebroadcasts, celebrations in the memory of those who listened to it, and the achievement of legendary status ever since.
It was converted into a stage play and performed at the Theatre Guild Playhouse in 1986, with many of those who created roles in the original radio serial treading the boards in the same parts. These included Hector Stoute, John Exetor and the extraordinary Rosamund Addo.
As a tribute to the venerable playwright, the play was brought back to the stage with a new cast. Farrier has a place in the history of Guyanese theatre because of his work and the manner of his emergence at the Theatre Guild in the 1960s during the rise of social realism and nationalism in literature and the theatre before and after Independence. The performers named above were also honoured along with Mr Khan and others – Nizam Bacchus, Aileen Hinckson and Bernard Chung who were involved in the original radio serial.
The new production of this work was by Senoj Creations directed by Collette Jones-Chin at the Playhouse at the end of June, and is scheduled to be shown again at the National Cultural Centre on July 19. These are high points to crown the career of the playwright, director, actor and broadcaster, and to remind the nation of his worthy contributions to radio, television and the stage.
To convert a radio soap opera into a stage play is as daunting a task as creating a screenplay or a stage play out of a novel. We are dealing with two different disciplines and the similarities between them are not unproblematic. The work for radio has certain freedoms and possibilities that are difficult to reproduce on stage, and is free from a number of restrictions afflicting the play on stage in front of a live audience. Added to that, a lengthy and often deliberately prolonged serial played out in several short episodes demands considerable contraction and editing to produce a play within the economies of time and action. Even the modern contemporary stage has to confront the ancient unities of time, place and action. Most playwrights ignore these conventions, but when structuring a neat play, devise ways of circumventing them.
These constraints must have played a role in the crafting of the script for the stage version and might have been responsible for some of the issues evident in this play. A few important hurdles were very well dispensed with. The play is set totally within the small fictitious town of Susanburg and focuses a very manageable plot, simple, not very deep and without grandeur. It is simply an attempt by a scheming aunt Stella Wharton (Colleen Humphrey) to steal away her niece June Winters (Charisma Jones-Chin) from the girl’s mother Savitri Winters, who is her brother’s widow. Savitri is double-cast, played by both Renita Dindyal and Natasha Azeez. Mrs Wharton visits Susanburg and enlists the unscrupulous services of Mentore (Henry Rodney) to get hold of both June and her close friend Carol (Carlene Samuel). But while Carol’s father Waldron (George Braithwaite) is happy to send off his daughter for a fee and a bottle of rum, Savitri is fiercely determined to fight off her former sister-in-law.
The plot is complicated by Mentore’s romantic interest in Savitri whom he pursues. But his unwilling target is becoming engaged to Desmond Sobers (Keon Heywood) who, along with his mother (La Vonne George) provides effective support and protection for Savitri.
This little drama was played out on an excellent set at the Theatre Guild. Jones-Chin showed herself an accomplished designer in capturing all the necessary playing areas to satisfy the plot. Five or six different locations are extremely easy for radio, but take some doing on stage. Jones-Chin’s set is both ultra realistic and effectively improvised, with colourful spectacle in the El Dorado Guest House and Savitri’s home, as well as very workable illusions created for the fire at the end and the waves on the beach.
The set certainly took care of major issues in the transformation from the air to the stage. But there are others which left a few questions. There were elements of the plot which were inconsistent or not easy to explain, and these might have been some of the casualties of the transformation. For example, two characters intervene in the battle for possession of June Winters and Carol – Mentore himself, who is an active participant in the plot, and Yayah played by Collette Jones-Chin, an old lady whose inclusion must have been mainly for comic effect. This was very well achieved in the performance of Jones-Chin.
It was quite often unclear the way Mentore seemed to so frequently undermine the plot in which he was working – serving his own interests on the one hand and seemingly working against them by warning the girls that they were about to be abducted, among his frequent crossings of the floor between Mrs Wharton’s schemes and the Winters family. He was a double agent, clearly not loyal to anyone, but why was he under-cutting his own interests?
Although he was working for the Evil Aunt, he wants to ingratiate himself with Savitri Winters; that is understandable, but there were pieces of the plot that did not fall neatly into place. Similarly, both Yayah and the girls were in possession of information about these plots, but they seemed not to take any urgent action based upon that intelligence. There is much delayed action right up to the very end. Other inconsistencies concerned Mrs Sobers, who was blind on the one hand, but able to see (blurrily) on the other.
La Vonne George, however, delivered a very well studied and believable character. Her acting was exemplary, and despite the minor contradictions, the audience had no problem seeing Mrs Sobers in her dramatic role. Actually, acting was a strong point of this production.
It was the performance of Henry Rodney that made Mentore acceptable to the audience, given the inconsistencies surrounding the character. The Tides of Susanburg is obviously a very funny play, even though there is melodrama and a dramatic conflict that the play expects to be taken seriously. The humour worked very well. Rodney convinced in most facets of Mentore’s character, allowing the audience to be entertained by him as an amorous drunk as well as a small-time ‘smart man’ or ‘jinnal’. He played particularly effectively with George Braithwaite his partner in both drink and crime. Braithwaite himself gave quite a concerted and complete effort in a small role.
Rodney was able to dramatise Mentore who came over more as a laughable rogue than a seriously dangerous thug. Mentore was seen as a braggard with grandiose boasts but lacking the capacity to execute anything complex and serious.
Both Natasha Azeez and Renita Dindyal delivered what was called for in Savitri Winters. Azeez, despite a bit of stageyness in her style, brought out Savitiri’s fighting spirit and determination while being sensitive to other aspects of the role. The portrayal was rounded and showed the appropriate and consistent concern that was a part of Savitri’s presentation throughout the play. There was consistent control and expressiveness.
Like Azeez, Dindyal convinced in the sensitivity that was necessary to play Savitri credibly. At one point she held back a bit on the viciousness of which Savitri was capable, but really lost very little in the violent outbursts. She won sympathy as a heroine from the struggles and conflict to the romantic lead. She managed the range and variations through which the character progressed and as a newcomer to the stage exhibited a capacity for major roles.
Keon Heywood had little difficulty commanding the role of the romantic opposite to Savitri, which was his most important function in the play. He was not challenged and remained unruffled in the middle of a conflict. His main antagonist was Stella as played by Colleen Humphrey in very competent fashion. Refinement and villainy sometimes go well together, and Humphrey added to the audience entertainment in the way she brought off the polished finesse in the exterior of a deeply sinister lady up to no good.
The two girls who were her prey were very much up to the task. Carlene Samuel had little challenge and was just as confident as Charisma Jones-Chin. Jones-Chin was capable of nuances and precociousness and exhibited a good deal of promise as an actress. There was understanding in the portrayal of June.
The Tides of Susanburg worked in this production as a funny and pleasant drama. Despite its many inconsistencies, it did not have to depend on its significant history to satisfy the audience. It returns to the Cultural Centre on Saturday.