BEACH ACCESS BY AWARD WINNING KENYAN PLAYWRIGHT KULDIP SONDHI REVIVED BY TTC

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Special birthday gift for award-winning Coast playwright

Kuldip Sondhi, proprietor of Reef Hotels.

Kuldip Sondhi, proprietor of Reef Hotels. Photo/ Gideon Maundu. 

Beach Access, the award-winning play by nonagenarian Kuldip Sondhi, staged this past weekend at Mombasa’s Reef Hotel, was just as fresh a production as it was in 1997 when it won the BBC radio playwriting competition and got produced both on BBC radio and at the Mombasa Little Theatre Club.
The topics tackled by Sondhi, 90, are just as timely, relevant and provocative today as they were back then: namely land-grabbing, corruption, and interracial affairs.
Sadly, little has changed since 1996 when Sondhi was first inspired to write Beach Access.
Having experienced the corruption and land-grabbing first hand, and also having seen middle aged white women seducing young beach boys (as Helga does Hamisi in the play), his script, just published in paperback, has an impact that is both personally and socially profound.
Last weekend’s production by The Theatre Company was slightly disappointing. Chalk it up to ‘artistic licence’ but there were so many alterations of Sondhi’s original script that one felt this was an entirely different play.
The first big switch was replacing the white woman with an African. Not that Stephanie Maseka wasn’t lovely as Helga; but the shock value of seeing a middle-aged European woman seduce a humble Swahili beach boy was all but lost.
The other major shift was bringing the ‘punch line’ scene, (what Sondhi describes as his signature ‘twist’ at the end of his play), up to the opening scene of the play, which meant that most of the play became a flashback, which wasn’t the playwright’s intent.
Again one can chalk it up to the artistic licence of TTC director Keith Pearson, but in a sense, it rendered the rest of the play anti-climactic. It also removed the shock value of discovering Helga drowned.
Staging of the storm that tipped Helga’s canoe and tossed her overboard was imaginative and inventive.
But then when Hamisi became a storyteller, explaining how Helga drowned to his advocate, Ms Hassan (Mercy Dali), again it wasn’t the writer’s wish to have the advocate be a female since it wasn’t realistic either then or even now.
Gender sensitivity
Perhaps this decision was meant to illustrate TTC’s gender sensitivity, but if so, why did they have to delete the scripted part of Mrs Seth, the wife of the corrupt businessman, whose role in the home had served as a crucial bridge between father (Ashik Yusuf) and son (Awwab Mohammed).
Mr Seth had persuaded the Administrative Chief (Anthony Mbithi) to help him grab the beach access road that the beach boys used to reach their curio kiosks on the sand. The AC and Seth intended to split the road between them and then each give his share to his child.
The AC’s daughter Cynthia (Sylviah Namusassi) had no problem grabbing the land but Seth’s son Prem had serious misgivings about the land grab.
In general, the casting of the show was very good, apart from Helga and apart from making one of the beach boys a beach girl! “There is no such thing as a ‘beach girl’,” I was told by one Mombasa resident.
In an interview, Mr Sondhi made it clear that he felt the hope for change in the way some Asians do business will come with the next generation, especially those who have been educated and exposed to global standards of fair trade.
Prem was meant to represent that next generation in the play since he had recently returned from studies abroad and was critical of his father’s business practices, despite Seth’s supposedly grabbing the beach access for his son.
Yet this son shows no clear sign of being the enlightened intellectual that he is in the script.
Finally, because Helga is bumped off in the beginning of the play, the ending is ambiguous, especially when Helga reappears on stage. One can’t be sure if she really drowned or if she’s a ghost or figment of Hamisi’s (Muscat Sayye) imagination.
Whichever way you see it, TTC still staged a polished production. It was a show that seemed to satisfy scriptwriter Sondhi, who celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend, and seeing Beach Access staged again was a special gift for one of Kenya’s pre-eminent playwrights, a man whose contribution to Kenya’s canon of original plays will come to light once his other 16 scripts are published.
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