A play for adults, not children
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
December 15, 2002
Trevor Rhone’s comic satire, School’s Out, was an excellent choice of play for the recent celebration of Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) activities at the Cultural Centre. Teachers can identify with it, but one is not sure it is a good choice for “educating and moulding the nation’s children through drama.” That is one of the stated objectives of the GTU effort, but there is nothing in School’s Out that is aimed at students or “the nation’s children.” The lessons in that play are not for them; its audience is the wider society, including teachers.
Rhone’s drama is an incisive satire on the teaching profession, the education system, hypocrisy, and related social injustices. He wrote it after his own experience of re-turning to his native Jamaica after studying in England, going to teach in a secondary school and confronting what he saw as the deplorable state of the system. The original title was Take Six, which must have been taken from the expression ‘take a five.’ Five was probably extended to six to reflect the excesses and extra indiscipline that pervade the system with teachers and administrators who are perpetually on a break.
This is what Rhone’s character, Russ Dacres, is surprised to find when he joins the staff of a high school full of professional dedication and bright ideas. He meets six teachers, each a different type and character, but none prepared, as he is, to do the work expected of caring educators. Dacres, ‘the crusader’ could have been Rhone himself when he took up his first teaching job in Kingston, Jamaica. This play does not target the high school students as audience; it shows them as victims. The issues raised are common to the whole Caribbean and are therefore quite relevant for Guyana.
The dramatist himself changed the title to School’s Out before the first performance. It is by no means his best play, but it is hilarious and apposite as a comment on the school system. The problem is that this GTU production directed by Andre Wiltshire failed to carry any of the statements. Neither production nor players understood the play’s subtleties and did not master the necessary techniques to communicate them. It was an under- prepared, superficial, ineffective performance, which managed to make a hilarious drama quite dull. The play has power in the meaning that remains after the laughter. The GTU production, although it played for laughs, could not even interpret the humour satisfactorily, so it lost the subtleties and the play fell flat.
The first error was the set, which was so vast and stark, that too much was lost in its superfluous space. It was entirely opened up to the wide expanse of the stage when it should have been cut down to size in order to better realize the play’s sense of congestion in an inadequate, cluttered staffroom.
The design also lost the importance of the headmaster’s door. During the play, it is visited several times; someone always goes to knock on it, yet it remains forever closed. Its occupant is referred to several times but never appears. Only once in the entire drama is there any indication that he is there in the office and, ironically, though he never seems to exert any order, guidance or leadership, the one time he is heard, he is caning a student. All this was underplayed. He is one of those characters who is conspicuous by his absence; yet, although he never appears, his presence is strong. But this production down-played and ignored it so much that the dramatic comment is not made.
Many other problems arose out of characterization. It is important to highlight the dramatic difference between Dacres (whose name, for reasons unknown, is changed to Drakes in Wiltshire’s production) and the other teachers. It is important to dramatize what the new, eager crusader, as played by Kirwyn Mars, comes up against. But most of the other characters lack the essential qualities to make this difference an interesting component.
Much of this depended on Colwyn King as Rosco Callender. King played for laughs, ignoring the necessary subtleties, yet he was not such an effective comic because he did not have the timing and was unfamiliar with the many nuances in the role. Thus, most of the humour that should come from him did not. Rosco is the play’s important pivot because of his ability to be likeable and roguish. He is the conscience of the play, a voice of compassion, good sense, reason and justice, yet one of the most idle, playful and irresponsible members of staff. He is a complex Anansi figure who lost his effectiveness because, as played by King, he was much too one-dimensional.
Neither did Kirk Link capture the character of the hilariously ungrammatical Hopal Hendry. Despite the fact that the character can be such a ready caricature, the humour and commentary were quite lost. Hendry represents a type within the school system and Rhone suggests at the end of the play that his ilk was about to take over. He is of such deplorable quality that the prospect of this take-over fills the audience with horror, despite the great fun that his speech and antics provide. However, Link’s portrayal of Hendry never got close to communicating any of this because the presentation was so weak.
Philip Fraser as the Chaplain had moments, although the character was, like the others, largely undefined. Again, he was important to Rhone’s design of a man of the cloth ironically personifying the worldly materialism, hypocrisy, and lack of Christian charity that pervade the education sector and the whole society. Trevor Greaves looked the part of Mr Josephs, the unprogressive, anachronistic colonial fossil who has sat at his desk in the staffroom for more than twenty years. It was difficult, though, to understand the strange excess of physical violence that accompanied his angry outburst at the end. It was not clear why he was wielding his guitar so threateningly, seeming about to maim everyone in the room with it.
Kwabena Wright as the expatriate, Pat Campbell, made no mark, so that all the relevant significance of having him as a foreigner on the staff (in the original script, he is white, but Wiltshire changed that) made no contribution to the play. Shelly Bancroft was plausible as Mica McAdam, the only female on the staff, victim of gossip and catty schoolgirls, object of lust, rivalry and, of course, romance.
Overall, then, the play had nothing in terms of concept and design, weak characterization and very little dramatic impact. It ought to have entertained while exposing the ills of both the teaching profession and the social environment, but beyond the occasional inevitable laugh, did not say much to the audience.
Yet, it still remains a good idea for the GTU to use public theatre because of its obvious social and educational value. In the context, this production, in spite of its flaws, tried to fill a void left in the flagging local theatre.