Theatre still a learning process as Julius Caesar, Lion and Jewel staged for exam students

In very general terms there has been a great leap forward in terms of theatre and secondary schools in Guyana recently. There have been new and developing institutions and enabling circumstances. These have set a platform and provided favourable conditions for the advancement of drama in the schools, but it has not necessarily happened that full advantage has been taken of them.

These have included the CXC programmes (both CSEC and CAPE), the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD), the National Drama Festival, the Unit of Allied Arts and the performance of plays for the benefit of schools.

At the core of this recent flurry of activity were public performances of two plays which are being studied by students for CSEC examinations (English B, to be written on May 12).  These are Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar done by GEMS Theatre Productions and The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama and Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and The Jewel done by the National Drama Company.

Julius Caesar

This Shakespearean tragedy is being examined in English B, and was staged primarily to stimulate the interest of the students who are writing it and for their better understanding of the play from seeing it live on stage.  It was directed by Subraj Singh who is a member of the National Drama Company and a lecturer at the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama with whom GEMS Theatre collaborated. It was also a learning experience for the students of the NSTAD.

This was actually the second time that GEMS offered this play since it was done two years ago at the National Cultural Centre. This second attempt in May, 2017 was a better production. It was artistically more interesting, well designed, well performed, and effectively demonstrated Shakespeare. But it was all undone by its poor sound reproduction quality and acoustics.

The play was performed in the National Sports Hall – certainly an unconventional venue for theatre. This immediately posed problems including lighting, physical staging in an unusual structure and a vast playing area, and sound/acoustics. Lighting was easily dispensed with and Singh used general lighting with no dimming, changes or black-outs in a performance that ran straight through with no changes or gaps between scenes. This worked to the play’s advantage and was both post-modernistic and authentic Shakespeare. Elizabethan theatre was always performed in broad daylight with no set/scene changes and no lighting except sunlight. So the production showed what a play in Shakespeare’s time would  have look like on stage.

The audience was on two sides in pavilions looking down at the stage. This served as an arena type setting, interestingly different from the common proscenium arch. The actors fitted themselves to it well and blocking seemed unproblematically managed. The vast stage playing area also served effectively both as another element of the post-modern and as a classical type arena. It used the entire vastness of the sports hall floor space to show the several different locations of the play with a constant trafficking of actors and groups all around the space throughout the play.

All of these enhanced the production as an elucidation of Shakespeare and would have help the audience to better understand it. This was in keeping with this production’s major strengths: clarifying Shakespeare being one. The play captured the atmosphere of its Roman setting. There was the look and feel of Rome including the Spartan set, representative rather than realistic, but true to Roman architecture and a vivid sense of the battlefield, as also of the streets of Rome and the senate forum.

The visual strength was enhanced by the very effective costuming and props put together by Alecia Charles as well as the NSTAD students including Jamal Omawale, and their Tutor Esther Hamer. There was some attention to detail, Roman dress, battle dress and weaponry.

There was strength in its representation of the conspiracy against Caesar (Jamohl Alexander) – that part of the play was made most clear. Strong contributions to this was the outstanding acting of the leaders of the conspirators Cassius (Mark Luke Edwards) and Brutus (Nickose Layne).  Luke Edwards and Layne played excellently together with clarity, character and meaning. Layne also played opposite Nurriyih Gerrard as Portia who demonstrated her effective range and versatility as an actress. She has shown a command of comedy and melodrama in previous appearances, and in this play her capacity as a Shakespearean actress was much in evidence.  Here she was able to handle a tragic study. Very good support to both came from Safira Abrahim-Williams as their servant Lucius.

Another strong point in this production was its treatment of the war. Again the atmosphere was good, enhanced by the military music and fanfares. There could be no misunderstanding by an audience here, and in fact, the pitched battle in which Mark Antony’s army defeated Brutus was a particular delight in its choreography and savagery, complete with the several bodies strewn about the stage as befits the Senecan Revenge tragedy that Julius Caesar is. In the war and the animosity between the generals Clinton Duncan stood out as Antony.

Duncan held his own in the oratory at Caesar’s funeral where he also played well against the crowd, another effectively performed element in the play. Shakespeare’s study of the crowd showed fickleness, fierce loyalty, if it does shift quite quickly from moment to moment. There was humour, well exemplified by Akeem Joseph as the punning cobbler. It also showed the quality of a mob. The crowd behaviour was well played by the performers resounding in their shouts but a bit too organised, moderately regulated for the violent and raucous rabble that they were meant to be. A few of the post-modernist elements arose from the crowd, such as the way three Soothsayers (Jheanelle Kerr, Diana Cruikshank and Towanie Thom) were used to symbolise the supernatural, which was prevalent in the play.

Where the production did not achieve much was in the presentation of the full dominant force that was Julius Caesar. Caesar’s intimidating power was not there, nor his utter conceit. Nor was his own fearlessness, particularly during the assault by his assassins, he caved in too easily. Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives that Shakespeare followed for his Roman history describes how Caesar drove fear into the very murderers when they attacked him. Nirmala Narine’s Calphurnia was clear and understandable, as she showed herself also capable of handling Shakespeare.

However, the public address system might be well suited for announcements at a sporting event, but it was not suited for theatre. The huge disappointment for the audience was in the way the speeches were marred by the sound system dysfunction and the poor acoustics. A great deal of very good work will go to ground if the audience cannot hear you.

Paul Budhna, Rovindra Persaud, Sean Griffith, Delon Sancho, Christopher Greaves, Randolph Critchlow, Stephen Mohamed, Frederick Minty, Vernon Benons, Alex Rodrigues, Nkofi Hodge, Akbar Singh, Julian McAlman, Nelan Benjamin, Andrew Belle, Denise Andrews, Eze Nurse, Oquela Jones, Jermaine Norton, Mark Punch, Kelvin Mingo and Andel Mathieson completed the large cast.

The Lion and The Jewel

The Lion and The Jewel was the other play recently done as a contribution to secondary schools’ exam revision. This production of it was directed by Ayanna Waddell and Nicholas Singh for the National Drama Company. As in Julius Caesar, there was some innovative direction. Soyinka’s purpose was made very clear by this interpretation that used dance and choruses which added some extra life to the play, at times integrating the choreographed movements with humour.

This production was done at the National Cultural Centre and was faithful to Soyinka’s script.  But Waddell and Singh also dropped in a few post-modernistic techniques. It had strengths in the way it elucidated the main plot of how Baroka the Bale of Ilujinle (Keon Heywood) outwitted all his antagonists – Lakunle (Linden Isles), Sidi (Tashandra Inniss) and Sadiku (Esther Hamer) in his battle against the schoolteacher for the jewel of the village. That scheme was very well played out in the production, particularly in the way the play traced the portrayal of Baroka.

The action foregrounded his scheming from his very first appearance and Heywood was outstanding in the role, subtly bringing out the cunning, manipulating influence and mental power of the Bale. His character was consistent and sustained with necessary and effective strategies of acting. He was equally convincing as the seducer and as the man of superior physical dexterity.

Another area of great strength was the tale of the jewel – Sidi the village belle. It was quite a successful performance by Inniss who was able to take the audience through the changes affecting her character. She could be a saucy but rustic village girl when necessary, but climbed to heights of egoism, to a sense of self importance, narcissism and hubris. Inniss was credible in all facets of the character, including her independence in arguments with Lakunle and her feminist side when she helped to articulate the battle of the sexes. Her notable achievement was the way she stepped down from those heights after Baroka’s conquest and was a conventional village girl fulfilling her traditional role as submissive wife.

Strong and significant performance was that of Isles in his first lead role. He clearly demonstrated his ability to be a lead. He portrayed the character of the schoolteacher from the elevated stiltedness of his own hubris in pride as the village intellectual. Isles was able to show the various sides, including the romantic lover, and the comic. Hamer was equally strong as the faithful first wife and head of the Bale’s harem as she was as the secretly rebellious feminist celebrating the cause of womanhood in a heavily patriarchal society.

Tradition was another theme made evident – the play is about the rise of modernity and the fight of the old traditional values to keep their place in a colonial Nigerian society. Significantly, Haywood and Hamer as the two older traditional characters spouted a Nigerian accent while Inniss and Isles as younger members given to the modern intrusions kept a straight English.

The supporting cast very neatly combined to lend the play a certain completeness, with the subtlety of the Favourite Wife sensitively played by Kimberly Fernandes and others who fulfilled choric and sometimes amusing roles: “the girls” – Nirmala Narine, Taneka Caldeira and Lisa Adams, along with Onix Duncan and Subraj Singh who were only called upon to mime.

The play was served significantly by Hamer’s choreography – always symbolic and meaningful, sometimes funny, and sometimes tending to be too military. Equal service was provided by the costuming (Hamer, Coleen Waddell, Renita Dindyal, LeTisha Da Silva, Nicola Moonsammy and Waddell).

Sonia Yarde, Osafa Dos Santos, Mikel Andrews, Akbar Singh, Charles Adrian and Victoria Moonsammy completed the cast.

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