Vakomana vaviri veZimbabwe
Athol Fugard recounts the story of how he got a visit from some black actors in East London in the sixties. They wanted his help and support to put on the Greek play ‘Antegone’ by Socrates. This led to his continued involvement with the actors in the black township of New Brighton. The play had very strong resonance with the residence and people of South Africa at that time. Classical Greek plays by their nature are quite spare of props and lend themselves to staging in bare settings. However the real leap happened because of the persistent police harassment when one of the actors was arrested before he could perform in the play. He ended up in Robben Island. There he finally got to realise his ambition by putting on a performance for the prison warders at year’s end. This was a custom in the prison that prisoners put on a fifteen minute performance once a year. He chose to focus on Antegone’s speech to the King Creon. He knew the whole play by heart. He created a performance around the speech with another prisoner. This is the play ‘The Island’. So the play ‘Antegone’ transmuted itself into ‘The Island’. This, in the best sense of the word, is the ‘township’ theatre.
When I went to see ‘Vakomana Vaviri veZimbabwe ‘ at the Oval Theatre, London, I was excited and feverish looking forward to a Zimbabwean interpretation of Shakespeare, even though I was intrigued by the choice. The play begins at a minibus rank somewhere in Zimbabwe. There is banter between two touts which leads to them wanting to show off their English. To demonstrate the felicity of their command of English they perform The Gentlemen of Verona. There a few Shona jestures thrown in but essentially this is a straight run of the play. With minimum of props : a luggage trunk which plays many parts as a clothes carrier, a bath, a carriage and a music resonator for the mbira so on. A glove transforms the wearer into a female role etc. The two actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu play all the fifteen parts between them. The changes are sometimes very swift and brief , someone not familiar with the play could easily get confused about the characters and the complex plot. It is a comedy and they bring off the comic spirit of it very convincingly, even if the language is difficult. You get the feeling that they could put on the play anywhere, even at a minibus stop or under a tree in Zimbabwe.
The next challenge is one of relevance. Theatre is entertainment, and this was entertaining. There has not been a shortage of entertaining theatre in Zimbabwe : some quite escapist, such as ‘Dear Mr Lampard’ by Risenga Mkondo on BBC World Service at present. Keeping strictly Shakespeare means it does not make the transition to present day Zimbabwean lives. It remains British, Middle English and colonial. Even the idea that to show ones prowess in English one is to refer to Shakespeare would raise post-colonial hackles. As the story progress the main characters are exiled . There they find that their friendship changes and their cultural assumptions loosen. This talks to the experience of displacement. There are other Shakespeare plays that may resonate also with Zimbabwe, like Richard III. Richard III, a tortured, cruel and autocratic ruler who creates the enemies that defeat him in the end. There have been other plays that have been performed that address from a more contemporary perspective. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Brecht for example at the Lyric Theatre in London in February 2008, with Wina Lucien Msamati.
Clearly what is needed is for us to textualise our own voices. This is what Athol Fugard and the Serpent Players were able to achieve with their famous plays like Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island. Can Feso be turned on its historical head, from a text of the nationalist struggle to one of the national struggle against a brutal and uncaring ruler? Can it even be a musical? Remember remember Serafina . The short story and the poem in English appear to have become the dominant modes of expression in Zimbabwe letters at present both in-print and on the internet. The stories and the imagination they contain are powerful, showing that : yes we can !