Thursday, September 1, 2011

While Performers Shined at HIFA, Zimbabwean Directors Were Exposed.

Samuel Ravengai
Sunday Mirror, Mirror Review 30 May 2004
The Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), which opened on the 27th of April and closed on the 2nd of May 2004, left a mark on the Zimbabwean cultural calendar. I have been following reports on HIFA since its inception while still in the Diaspora and this has been my first ever attendance. I am aware of a myriad of debates that HIFA has generated ranging from organisational issues, politics, race, culture and many others. I am not prepared to delve into these issues in this article as my major preoccupation is on art itself.

There were a variety of shows I attended ranging from dance, (Moving into Dance) music, (Ismael Lo and Soweto Kinch) and theatre, (Two Hungry Men, Independence Day, Vivace, Unveiling, African Macbeth, Harry, the Brother from Another Mother, Wedding Night, Mathew and Jimmy Show). As you can see from the choice of shows, I am a theatre person and therefore incompetent to give insight into other forms of art. All I can say is that on a subliminal level the dances and music motivated an instinctively satisfying feeling and they uplifted my spirit. I cannot wait for the 2005 HIFA!

In all the shows that I watched, performers generally excelled in their craft of acting. However, they were key areas that needed directorial intervention. Most of the failures were noted in the visual dimension of theatre, which encompasses the ground plan, composition and picturisation among other things. But let us first investigate the way performers handled the craft of acting. The Unveiling cast was fabulous. What I admired about Watson Chidzomba, John Dhlakama and Eleanor Madziva was their excellent ownership of lines. The words were very fresh and they were exchanged between them as if they were spoken for the first time. Their voices were well coached by their director Susan Hains. We could hear every word, breath, syllable and consonant. The area of voice is Susan Hains’ speciality and she demonstrated beyond doubt that she is a voice expert. Although the action was restricted around the two sofas and a coffee table, we had very good moments of performers’ picturisation where they gave the audience an internal story by showing motivations, actions and feelings. When Vera and Michael dominate Ferdinand, the story is told in words as well as gestures, voice modulation and bearing. I will bring out directorial challenges of this production shortly. My only concern was with Watson Chidzomba. I have seen him perform in many stage and screenplays, but what is worrying is that he tends to give the same package for all different characters he is playing. I would like to see him play different characters differently. The same criticism can be levelled against Dylan Wilson-Max who featured in Harry, the Brother from Another Mother. I have seen him perform in three television series and one stage play so far and like Watson, he is offering the same package.

The craft of acting was also handled well in other theatre shows. The Walter Muparutsa directed Wedding Night was highly entertaining. All the performers did well and I am in agreement with NAMA adjudicators who voted Joyce Mpofu the best actress this year. Kevin Simomondo and Lucky Saungweme of Two Hungry Men were good in terms of using their bodily instruments and silence. They could have been better had they given attention to their articulation. Part of the problem was the way their script was written. It was constructed from complex and multiple sentences that did not reflect the way people talk in everyday life. This affected elocution and sometimes the audience missed on key issues that were deliberated on. The Independence Day cast was equally good- especially the main actress Sara. However, the cast’s energy needed directorial intervention. They employed the Amakhosi bravura melodramatic style of acting, which was inappropriate for a work based on a classical realist text – Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It all looked overacted and the director Thoko Zulu should have intervened and brought individual energies down to the same fundamental beat.

In all the aforementioned Zimbabwean productions with the possible exception of Wedding Night, quite a number of directorial challenges were evident. The most obvious one was the disorientating use of space. The use of space must be logical and should aid the illusion that the director is trying to project. The arrangement of properties did not aid the creation of a three-dimensional quality to staging. Take Unveiling for instance. It had three acting areas – the sofas, a coffee table with beverage bottles and a music centre. This should be applauded, as an effective ground plan should have a variety of acting areas. However, all these acting areas were placed along the lateral plane. It was difficult to reinforce the illusion of a living room as we did not know how wide or deep it was. The properties were not strategically positioned to define the space. Consequently, this arrangement forced the performers to use more of the lateral plane than anything else. Only two dimensions of the living room were clear; the third one was missing as performers had no or little motivation to move into the upstage area.

The same can be said about Harry, the Brother from Another Mother. The director Mandisi Gobodi arranged furniture – bed, cupboard, two chairs and a coffee table along the lateral plane. The blocking of the play was limited to those areas with properties. The same movements were observed in Thoko Zulu’s Independence Day. She had just one couch stretching along the lateral plane. All movements were executed left and right along the axis defined by the couch. Directors should realise that theatrical space is three-dimensional and that illusion should be impressed upon the audience all the time by directing movements in all three areas. This helps in creating a variety of body positions rather than the monotonous full front and profile positions. A variety of body positions embellishes spectacle. ‘Variety of body positions’, according to one of the best American directors, Converse, ‘adds a great deal of visual interest to a scene, and is a very powerful communicative tool’.

I have already commended the directors for coaching well the performer’s language and speech skills. The same rigour should have been exercised in the area of visual communication. The visual dimension encompasses how performers and properties are arranged on stage in order to achieve an instinctively satisfying clarity and beauty. On a subliminal level, the visual aspect of theatre if well executed gives the audience a sense of completion and artistic wholeness to what is presented before them. Apart from the clarity and beauty radiated by the stage pictures, the visual aspect of theatre must also tell a story. In the aforementioned productions, the major compositional technique employed by the directors was creating emphasis through varying the heights of performers – sitting and standing. All things being equal the tallest figure gets the attention of the audience. The triangle was the most prevalent shape noticeable on stage in performer relationships, probably because in these plays only three performers could be seen on stage at any particular moment. While these are good compositional techniques, the directors should have searched for a combination of other techniques to create a variety in emphasis. Monotony is a state which in real life is very boring. In art it is a taboo to be avoided unless it is used to gain a special effect. A variety of compositional techniques should have been used to enhance spectacle. In as much as the word is important, the visual dimension is also important as elegantly described by Eugene Ionesco: ‘the theatre appeals as much to the eye as to the ear’. It is more than words as it also speaks in images. In fact the audience comes to watch and not to hear theatre. Our theatrical productions should go beyond the standard of an excellent radio play. Of the four productions cited, the Walter Muparutsa directed Wedding Night was ahead of others in its use of space and execution of compositional and picturisation techniques. No wonder Muparutsa was chosen the best theatre director during this year’s NAMA. E-mail this writer at