A revival of popular theatre?
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
March 7, 2004
Theatrical trends, such as they are, move in cycles. Just a few months ago when Fitzroy Tyrrell produced Somebody Gon Horn Yu, there were signals that the local audiences were returning to the popular plays which they had only recently deserted. This was further reflected in the even more enthusiastic response to the revision of Ian Valz's Two's A Crowd by Godfrey Naughton and Jennifer Thomas. In both these cases the audiences showed robust and vocal appreciation for the thrills provided by these popular comedies, making positive theatrical experiences out of unimpressive scripts.
Statistically, it is too soon to confirm that the crowds have returned to the Cultural Centre, but they kept flocking back in even greater numbers to yet another popular play, Ras Leon Saul's For Better for Worse. This, too, evoked the return of the familiar enthusiastic vocal participation from members of the audience that so many others find irritating. But it all seems to signal that, perhaps, the trend has swung again, and the crowds are taking renewed interest in the local stage.
Saul's play has quite a history. Like Two's A Crowd, it is a revisit of a work that was previously produced, but in the case of For Better For Worse, the script has been reworked. It started life as a radio serial before it was turned into a stage play at a time when the Guyanese theatre was undergoing significant change. Locally written plays were on the rise, replacing the international drama that dominated the 1970s. It was a time when the strong amateur establishment was being challenged by the introduction of commercial theatre in which local playwrights, producers and actors were beginning to get some income from their work.
Harold Bascom, Grace Chapman, Ian Valz and the then new Theatre Company with Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo were a part of this development. So was Leon Saul, who later migrated to Canada.
He has now revised his play, fitting it in a more topical environment. Managed by GEMS Theatre Productions and Caribbean Feedback, it was played on an elaborate, naturalistic set, giving the impression of a thorough effort.
Everything was in place, including sections neatly flown in and the attention paid to costuming. Significantly, they succeeded where so many have failed, to get the Cultural Centre's sound system working. Unfortunately, it worked so well that it was unmodified, uncoordinated, booming and often too loud.
There was a fairly thin line between what was thorough and what was overdone. For example, one of the play's many inconsistencies was the high polish of the Fennimore's house. Complete with a posh-looking bar, it seemed just a bit too rich for the home of a retrenched, out-of-work stevedore. And as for the sound, there were times when one wished it wasn't working so well; such as when nightclub performer Empress Woman (Lady Barbara) was singing in her discordant, ear-abusing fashion.
Set in present-day Georgetown, Saul's melodrama capitalizes on the topical Guyana-Canada drug connection. Liverpool Fennimore (Andre Wiltshire) is a top-flight CANU undercover agent working with two Canadian RCMP officers Bobby Dunn (Max Massiah) and Sonita Naidoo (Nicola Moonsammy) who come to Guyana to snare local drug lord Conrad 'Sugar Baby' (Henry Rodney) who trafficks in cocaine between George-town and Toronto. Unknown to Fennimore, Sugar Baby is about to marry his sister Audrey (Grace Williams) and has already involved his Canadian girlfriend, Violet (Sonia Yarde) in cocaine.
The play follows the rise and fall of Sugar Baby. Ras Leon's direction was sufficiently competent to have it moving at a good pace without technical flaws, although too many sequences of dialogue were excessively drawn out and repetitive. The action sustained interest, it did not bore, but the plot is inconsistent, full of loopholes, unconvincing and has too many ragged loose ends that do not hold together. Saul explains it painstakingly in a 'Synopsis' in the programme, but it might be better not to read that. For example, he points out that Detective Sonia Naidoo "falls in love with Liverpool and would do anything to get rid of Violet!" But the audience is none the wiser, since not a trace of that detail was to be found anywhere in the play as performed.
Beyond that, there are many other unexplained questions. It is never clear what the detectives know and what they don't, and if they are top-flight investigators it is surprising what they seem not to know. Both plot and performance ran effectively and entertained an audience who appreciated the sensation in which they dealt. But some of the deficiencies in the detail and clarity of the plot affect the work as a finished piece of drama. A dramatist supplies his characters, and his audience, with vital pieces of information because they are important to the plot, the themes or because they are significant items of dramatic interest. For Better For Worse falters in these areas.
Both plot and performance were also affected by some degree of pseudo-American imitation in the demeanour and style of Rodney and Sugar Baby's entire establishment, including the rough-neck henchman Grisly (Kirk Abdul Jardine). The scenario was from so many American gangster movies of a previous generation. The attempt by Massiah and Moonsammy to sound Canadian produced a similar effect. Somehow it did not ring true for the character and styling of the Georgetown drugs scene with its ilk of gunmen and road hustlers. Then, when one gets into the grand scheme of the cocaine pushers to overthrow the Guyana Government through a 'narco-coup d'etat' the play becomes very fanciful, shifting from social realism beyond melodrama into fantasy.
The weight of all this told on some of the actors beyond their attempts to imitate accents. Actress Sonia Yarde, in terms of pure talent, is among the very best in Guyana. But it seems she is also among the most frequently miscast. In the role of Violet, the Canadian activist who has to live a double life, she ended up as less than convincing, trying, it appeared, to fit in with the rest of the play's atmosphere. Yet, even despite that technical problem, she was still good.
So was Mignon Lowe as Ma Fennimore. She, however, was quite unaffected by the atmosphere and exhibited the work of an actress with the confidence of her own style and considerable experience. George Brathwaite as Pa Fennimore was also convincing, although one wondered at his melodramatic drunkenness. Similarly, there was cause to question the way Ras Joshua, a controlled but serious and strong character, who actually saved the day and brought about the capture of the Sugar Baby gang, was crafted and played. Playwright and director Saul played the role quite well. The character was clear, interesting and very entertaining, but comic; too comic for his function as a man of some depth.
Even while recognizing For Better For Worse as a fairly effective production that certainly had the attention of a large audience, its recognizable faults must be taken into consideration when evaluating it as a finished drama and a piece of theatre.