They recount stories that have made Europe and other continents merry for centuries on foreign soil that is Malawi, hundreds of kilometres away from the play wrights’ birth-place.
They learn from foreign literature and history books and, then, redeem the accounts through humour on the local theatre stage.
They- local playwrights and theatre groups- then, cultivate fame for something that is not their original work, for it takes very little fire to generate the smoke of fame nowadays.
And, in the name of doing adaptations for plays created in foreign lands, local theatre groups such as Nanzikambe Arts have found themselves adapting plays such as La storia della tigre ‘The Story of the Tiger’- a play authored by the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Italian Dario Fo- African Romeo and Juliet, Hendrik Ibsen's Doll's House adaption, Breaking the Pot, among others. In fact, since its inception in 2003, Nanzikambe Arts has done adaptations of several foreign plays.
Solomonic Peacocks, another renowned local theatre group, has also staged an adaptation of the French play L’ecole des femme (School of Wives) at the finals of the French Drama Schools Competition.
While the practice of adapting foreign plays is common in the world of theatre, and some theatre-goers find no problem with the practice, some observers have expressed reservations over the trend. They argue that, when a country’s theatre industry finds itself in this sort of situation, there is always someone behind the scenes who starts such a ‘game’ in order to win at the adapter’s expense!
For instance, theatre devotee Bruno Matumbi expresses reservations over the practice, observing, through his Facebook page, thus: “This trend of redoing plays written elsewhere is making me sad. Was Du (Chisiza Jnr.) the last Nyasaland playwright? I loathe adaptations done for no special reason but for lack of (creativity) or laziness of some sort.”
Matumbi says another disappointing aspect is that the quality of original local productions is poor, reiterating Ben Okri’s sentiments that, “African literature gets praise from its content and not quality”.
He observes, for instance, that some plays are created for the sake of it. “A play about Cashgate becomes a good one but (is) without any artistic value. There are activists’ plays and not artistic ones. I am a purist.”
One of the people who organise marketing seminars for artists, Michael Mutisunge N. Phoya, concurs with Matumbi on the issue of poor quality, observing that this is one of the factors influencing the practice of adapting foreign plays.
“(Creative) works in Malawi are shoddy, with most of their (the works) creators more interested in appearing in newspaper articles that are shoddier (than mature productions). Still, I am baffled by us, Malawians: So poor (materially and spiritually) but so proud, almost to a fault. Our works are unfortunately a reflection of our disposition. The good news is that we can come to peace with our need to learn/grow and then build from there,” says Phoya.
Quality versus content
Charles Shemu Joyah, in his response to Matumbi’s observations, observes that a number of factors also influence the trend of adapting foreign productions.
“The biggest problem I have with the Malawian plays is their quality on one hand and a not too demanding audience on the other,” says Joyah.
Joyah further observes that the problem goes beyond content, “it's the manner in which the content is presented. A play like ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’ is steeped in anti-apartheid content, but present it a manner that is very artistic in terms of language and imagery.”
But Mbene Mbunga Mwambene, who has become the local face of ‘The Story of the Tiger’ by performing the one-man act in Malawi and abroad, says issues of funding also influence the trend of delving into the world of adaptations.
“There is another practical dimension to explain why we find ourselves doing adaptations. Apart from being just classics
with great quality, we are so much influenced by the source of funds. Specific funders only fund specific projects. The artistic freedom is
limited. As long as you try to (be artistic and) are out of the area of confinement, the question of getting funding becomes irrelevant,” observes Mwambene.
However, Joyah does not believe that money issues are the only factor at play.
“While I understand the issue about financiers, I still think that we do not have outstanding writers. Can you give a list of five outstanding plays by Malawian playwrights in the past ten years? We can broaden that to other genres of ...See More”, observes Joyah.
Drop in the ocean
However, other playwrights observe that not all local theatre groups specialise in adapting foreign plays.
Dikamawoko Arts director, Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, observes that there are more original plays produced locally than foreign adaptations.
“There are very few theatre groups that do adaptations. Solomonic, Lions, Kwathu, Dikamawoko, Rising Choreos, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre and many others are producing original scripts but perhaps you do not get to see them, or to hear about them. And, since the death of Du Chisiza, there have been so many plays that have been written and produced. Perhaps they lacked mass appeal for one reason or another, but there have been produced nonetheless,” says Nkhonjera, adding:
“The difficult thing about theatre these days is that it faces so many challenges, one of them being competition with other forms of entertainment, an example being television. The other problem is advertising. Du Chisiza advertised on MBC Radio and in The Daily Times and everyone got the message. These days if we advertise on MBC TV, you could be watching Times TV, or more likely, DSTV. If we advertise in The Daily Times, maybe you only read The Nation. If we advertise on Capital FM, maybe you only listen to Zodiak (Broadcasting Station). If we advertise on Facebook, maybe you are not even in the Theatre Malawi group. There are many challenges.”
But Nkhonjera observes that the country still has a horde of creative playwrights.
“I went to a Kwathu (Drama Group) performance a few months back, and Steers Garden (in Blantyre) was packed and, from the audience reaction, you could see that the play was relevant. So, no, maybe Du was the last Nyasaland playwright but certainly not the last in Malawi. Charles Mphoka, Smith Likongwe, Thlupego Chisiza, Manasseh Chisiza, Joel Mkandawire, Joyce Mhango Chavula and many others are writing. I can even throw my name in that basket,” says Nkhonjera.
Mwambene cannot agree more.
“Talking of local playwrights, positive slides have been made recently. I personally wrote and directed a play last year in Austria for a festival,” says Mwambene.
Solomonic Peacocks’ director, MacArthur Matukuta, says the issue of doing adaptations should not be a cause for concern because there are more local productions than foreign adaptations at any given time.
“For example, in our case, we have done only one adaptation (of a foreign play) in our 15-year history, and that is L’ecole des femme. This was part of a project promoting French lessons among students. This can, therefore, not overshadow all the good work we have done in coming up with local creations,” says Matukuta.
Matukuta adds that doing adaptations should not be interpreted as a manifestation that playwrights have run out of ideas.
“Theatre is diversity, after all. In fact, it is not wrong to do adaptations. It is a way of trying to taste what other parts of the world have to offer. We should just avoid falling into the trap of doing them time and again.
But theatre devotee Muthi Nhlema chooses to differ.
“The problems of audience access to theatrical products, be it high quality or otherwise, are influenced by far many factors than just quality. In fact, the creative industries (if I dare call them that) suffer from one bundled problem - Marketing (promotion, distribution, product and price),” says Nhlema, adding:
“Do we have a product that people want? Do we provide value for money? Can people easily access it? Do people know about it? Each strand is a basket case of questions (but), sadly, artists seem to think it boils down to just having a shoddy article in the newspaper. It’s far more than that. Furthermore, to downplay the impact of new media and more media outlets, relative to Du's day, would be a mistake.
“Du was born in ‘easier’ times when there were fewer media outlets, fewer homes owned a TV, let alone DSTV and there was a hunger for political dissent (but), currently, the citizenry is numb to political activism unless it has got to do with their pay check. Oh! And trust me! There are people who are very comfortable to watch poor quality productions just for a laugh.”
Facing the future
National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam) President, Manasseh Chisiza, says the future of theatre would be incomplete without drawing on lessons from the past, hence he sees the practice of doing adaptations being an integral part of the future.
“To begin with, playwrights do adaptations in order to appreciate great works of the past. You will observe that standard plays written by great playwrights such as William Shakespeare are the ones mostly adapted because they are classics and help one appreciate art,” says Chisiza.
Chisiza adds that what makes adaptations irresistible is the fact that the stories that are told and retold have become global (universal).
The Ntam president says adaptations should not be a cause for concern because there is a remote possibility of them overshadowing local productions.
“We have a lot of creative people in the country, as well as untapped potential. Therefore, there is no need to worry,” says Chisiza.
In other words, local productions remain a sphere of deep homogeny steeped in their own self-sufficient order, hence reducing chances of foreign adaptations becoming macabre souvenirs of time bombs that tick away over the local theatre industry to zero!