Is something vital missing? The Guyanese stage
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
April 25, 2004
Theatre owes its existence to an audience. That has always been true, but nowhere has it been more eloquently demonstrated than in the rise and fall of the local play on the Guyanese stage over the past decade. After celebrating many a happy pay day, the local theatre began to decline, reaching its lowest point between 2000 and 2003. But it was during those doldrums that Fitzroy and Jianna Tyrrell emerged as new playwrights/producers/directors. In spite of the dismal outlook at the time, they were among the very few who exhibited the courage and determination to produce drama at the Cultural Centre. They were willing to take the risks while their more experienced colleagues retreated.
While their persistence was not necessarily the only cause, Fitzroy Tyrrell's play, Some-body Gon Horn Yu late in 2003, certainly played a major role in wooing the audiences back into the theatre after a prolonged absence. Apart from the Tyrrells, almost every producer suffered severe box-office losses, and the popular success of that comedy must have given encouragement to others who saw that it was fairly safe to return. Godfrey Naughton and Jennifer Thomas's production of Ian Valz's Two's A Crowd and Ras Leon Saul's For Better For Worse were both held over by popular demand after that.
Theatre is also shaped and influenced by its audience, and Tyrrell's popular popular plays were tailored to suit the Cultural Centre audiences. Somebody Gon Horn Yu exploited the popular culture, and indicated that this type of play was once again on the rise. In this type there is no intellectual challenge, but the audience is certainly engaged and gives lively response to a theatrical experience. Play-wrights produce to supply this demand and generally, there is nothing wrong with that. It is the nature of theatre and good theatre is always in touch with its audience.
But this Cultural Centre audience is seeking entertainment, not necessarily good drama. The scripts are hastily produced for this market, reaching the audience via the most direct route, including topicality, familiar subjects, humour, farce and sensational thrills. There is immediate communication, and, when you come to think of it, that is what playwrights want. Throughout history, those ingredients have produced the world's best drama and dramatists.
If this is happening on the Guyanese stage today, why are we left with a sense that all is not well? Why is there a feeling that not only something, but something vital, is missing?
The answer may be found in the characteristics of the four most recent plays at the Cultural Centre, viz, For Better For Worse, Errol Chan's Shattered, Godfrey Naughton's Living A Lie and Ken Danns' The Wedding. Answers may also be found in an observation of the audience because, even though the producers are targeting them, their behaviour tells us that something is missing. They can tell when a play is weak and, in fact, they recently abandoned the stage when other forms of entertainment emerged at lower cost and the local plays were a long series of repeats of the same thing.
The reason why these popular plays are so ephemeral is that they are hastily produced for the moment, to strike what is fashionable; and, like fashion, they are superficial and do not last. They are satisfied with a few laughs, opting for farce and slapstick because they are easier. It takes a good playwright to use these to make a statement, to transform topicality into art, and good playwrights are very scarce in Guyana today.
The local plays, however, are taking advantage of the return of the audiences, and the four most recent plays are typical examples of the popular types. The latest was Ken Danns' The Wedding directed by Desiree Edghill. It is not entirely new and is not among Danns' better works, since he has produced stronger pieces. Its plot is reminiscent of his earlier one-acter, The Village Ram and its originality suffers because it seems to be a local version of so many episodes of the popular American soap operas. The same plot has been used in The Young and the Restless.
The producer calls The Wedding a "tragedy comedy," but it is not as sophisticated as the average tragicomedy, being a mixture of melodrama and farce. It is set in a small country village, and in this play, the village ram reforms. Under pressure, Colin (Mark Link), is willing to leave behind his past philandering and marry a girl he made pregnant (Lavern Fredricks). But he has to fight off his strong, influential mother (Allison Melville), who is adamantly against it, his persistent former girlfriend (Rushella La Cruiz), the village gossip (Sheron Cadogan), and obeah in order to do it.
The author's line is obvious. Criticized in the past for merely documenting negative social situations, he now tries to make a difference. Mark is held up as a positive example to young men to shoulder their responsibilities. Also, this is not the first play in which Danns has advocated marriage and showed the dire consequences of deviant behaviour. It turns out that, unknown to anyone in the village, Mark's fiancee is really his half-sister, the product of a past affair between his mother and the girl's adulterous father (Neaz Subhan). The mother opposes the marriage for that reason, but, as was well played by Allison Melville, she is also bitter about the past and her life without the husband she desired.
The play is, however, swallowed up by its soap opera quality and story line with all the usual complications of the jealous former girlfriend, spurred on to prevent the marriage by the embittered mother, the village gossip and obeah. It is also played for farce with little emphasis on sequences that could be moving.
Some elements are included for their spectacle and, perhaps, popular appeal. We are spared the usual farcical stereotypical obeah scene, but not the queh-queh and not the wedding. These are presented in full order from top to bottom. And while the queh-queh is choreographed and danced in meticulous detail by the National Dance Company, such realistic sequences may be spectacular, but they are usually unnecessary and undramatic. The grand wedding procession down the aisle really added very little. The play, on the whole, full of life, became progressively less and less interesting as these rituals went on, through the lengthy reception to a tame ending. Ironically, this ending was to be the grand dramatic climax suspensefully held back, but it fell flat because it was already expected and predicted.
Also, the village setting was unconvincing since little was attempted to reflect it. The characters never played the part since they were all urban, sophisticated users of standard English. There was only one character created to be a country man and this did not work because he was the exception rather than the rule. Ironically, however, this character, as well as the gossip, rescued the lost picture of village life.
Although he was very stereotyped as a rural rustic, Deon Abrams was given some of the funniest one-liners in the script. In turn, he gave a very well-defined, strong performance as Uncle Rufus in one of the two outstanding portrayals in the play. The other was Sheron Cadogan's creation of Cynthia, the gossip, who proved quite a hilarious Eshu-like trickster character, enjoying her malice, and sowing discord at every turn. Although Mrs Cadogan-Taylor has played these before, she expended her considerable talents on the best-drawn character in the play. The Director Desiree Edghill as the fiancee's mother, has played this role so many times before that it is difficult to find anything new to say about her performance, even though it was highly competent.
The Wedding had its moments of emotion, diluted by comic farce. It provided the expected humour and thrills for the audience, but made no memorable statement about the village life that it portrayed rather unconvincingly.