Seeing Life through Another’s Eyes
By margaretta wa gacheru
Posted September 1, 2012
Saturday Nation, Nairobi
Aspiring Kenyan playwrights might learn a thing or two from the Anglo scribe Alan Ayckbourn, who, as from next Friday night, will have two different scripts being staged simultaneously in Nairobi, one with Phoenix Players, the other by a new group calling itself Working Title Theatre Production, and both directed by Carol Odongo.
If I were you, which just opened last Friday night at Professional Centre, offers an excellent illustration of what’s best about Ayckbourn (who’s written more than 75 plays, nearly half of which have won accolades) and why his work has qualities and characteristics worth emulating, at least as far as form is concerned. (Content is another matter altogether)
The first is character development. Ayckbourn takes his time to allow audiences to learn a good deal about the people that populate his plays. For instance, in the first act of If I were you, we meet the whole Rodale family and quickly learn they all live in one brand of hell or other. The biggest bugger of the lot is the unfaithful Baba Rodale, Mal (Kenga Sankei) while the sweetest, most long-suffering is his wife Jill (Esther Neema). Their kids Sam (Isaac Kimiyu) a student and Christie (Jackline Njoroge), a young mother and apple of her father’s eye, are witnesses to their parents’ misery, feeling the effects themselves.
Act 1 is largely spent showing us this sad situation. Unfortunately, it’s revealing and rugged, but it was slow-going between scenes. At intermission, I was tempted to leave; but as I knew Ayckbourn is renowned for rapid turn-arounds and surprising twists, I stayed. And I am glad I did.
Act 2 finally brought us what we’d been promised beforehand – a clever comedy which initially might have seemed far-fetched, but so what! After a day of dreary familial pain, Mal and Jill take a rest, only to wake up having somehow switched bodies so that the mean-spirited Mal is trapped inside Jill’s body and the sweet, long-suffering mama is stuck inside the lanky form of her mate.
The actors do a delightful job taking on the body language of their spouse. Yet once they choose to spend the day in the other’s respect work sites (Mal being Jill staying home, Jill being Mal, the sales manager at a bed and bedding store), the serious fun begins.
It isn’t just that each discovers how they are perceived by others, which is an ugly eye-opener for Mal, who’s seen as a philandering bastard by his kids. It is the discovery of secrets that the other’s been keeping: Jill getting confirmation of Mal’s mistress and Mal learning of Jill’s plan to leave him for good.
Both parents also learn their beloved Christie is being physically abused by their son-in-law Dean (Kevin Nzevela), which leads to the high point of hilarity in the show, when Dad (inside the visage of Jill) clobbers Dean for mistreating his daughter.
Mom (inside Mal) also makes unexpected decisions at work. She/He sweet-talks all of Mal’s disgruntled clients and shows compassion to all his staff. He/She even takes them all out for a drink at the company’s expense, to Mal’s chagrin.
Both actors do a dazzling job ‘becoming’ their spouse. But the other high-point of irony comes when Mal (inside Jill) is forced to face his son’s affinity for theatre. The dad had once had high expectations of Sam becoming a top sportsman or professional, but Sam’s only interest is Shakespeare. Rehearsing his lines with ‘Mom’, Sam performs a soulful rendition of Francis Flute dying from Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. The dad finally sees his son through new eyes.
The role reversal only lasts a day. And as the show ends, we are left wondering what happens next. But again, this is classic Ayckbourn: leave the audience wondering, aware that we may have just witnessed a life-transforming event for all the Rodales, or maybe not.
Ayckbourn’s other script, How the other half loves has some similarities to If I were you, especially his inclination to examine daily life from various perspectives. In this case, the contrast is class-based. The script revolves around three couples (one lower, one middle and one upper class) meeting for a meal (or rather meals). The mix is messy but the humor’s not to be missed. Running this weekend only at AF, it’s the show to see.