Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wears Malawian face

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet has been told through many angles. To many, is just scripted love tale hugely irrelevant to most Africans-mind twitching theme, plot and set-up-but watching an adopted piece by Nanzikambe Arts, the play clearly reveals how love bounds all precincts.

Romeo and Juliet adapted by Nanzikambe cast under the directorship of Bilimankhwe Arts – UK. The all Malawian cast localize the most considered as greatest love tale of all, with British-based Theatre Practitioner and associate director of Bilimankhwe Arts, Amy Bonsall who creatively directed the piece for three weeks to suit both the UK and African audiences.

Firstly staged in UK in July and August this year; Nanzikambe Arts premiered African Romeo and Juliet to the local audience last week, starting with St. Andrews International students before Nanzikambe Arts Café on Friday, with audience satisfied with the piece of art.

Just a glimpse, one could see well calculated moves, steps, coordination and professionalism in the art of speaking Shakespearean verses. In no doubt, it’s one of Nanzaikambe’s best shows-a masterpiece full of life, truly heart throbbing.

Nanzikambe arts performing of Romeo and Juliet.

African adaptation

African Romeo and Juliet is instantly recognisable and relevant to both watching Malawian and European audiences with some elements adjusted while retaining the story line. The Elizabethan sayings, some, were replaced with African sayings without losing the intended meaning.

The setting is in villages; however the names of the cities remain the same. That is to say for instance Verona which is a city is actually a village name in the production. The characters retained the original names.

There is a lot of song and dancing, some traditional and newly composed for the production, done in English, Chichewa or other vernacular languages, Tumbuka, Ngonde, Yao that draw the audience into the play.

It is a physical performance retaining- the original Shakespearean poetry and language in some scenes. The love scenes retain the beauty of original verses, all done to simplify the play for easy understanding and marvel to watch.

“It was hard work, especially knowing that the play would be performed at Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and to audiences very familiar with the text,” said Jafali Amadu Mussa who plays Capulet in the play.

“It was good and an honor as a theatre artist to perform at the place where one of the best playwrights in the world, William Shakespeare, was born and having chats with artists of the Royal Shakespeare Company and watching their performances was equally inspirational,” says Mphundu Mjumira, one of the artists in the production.

African Romeo and Juliet- a story of love, hate and tragedy-powerfully enacted by a cast coming from different drama groups brought together under the Nanzikambe Arts banner, Malawi’s leading theatre arts-based organization which boasts of 20 productions to its credit since inception in 2003.

It is collaboration between Nanzikambe Arts of Malawi and Bilimankhwe Arts of the UK founded by Kate Stafford who is also the founder of Nanzikambe Arts.

The adoption was produced under the invitation of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and was performed at Halls Croft Garden, which is a garden of one of William Shakespeare’s daughter.

In the UK, the play was performed mostly in Chichewa with English injected into it to make people follow the story line. It, however, maintains Shakespearean English language in dialogues between the lovers, that is, Romeo and Juliet so as not to lose the poetic elements.

The Cast

The African Romeo and Juliet is physical, full of dance and song hence the inclusion of professional dancers, Hussein Gopole of the Mudzi Cultural Dance Troupe fame who plays Montague and Jafali Mussa who plays Capulet.

Romeo is played by Misheck Mzumara while Juliet is played by Maureen Mathala. Nkhwachi Mhango plays Bonvolio while Mphundu Mjumira plays Tybalt, Servant and Friar Lawrence.

Geofrey Mbene plays The Prince and Mercutio and Dipo Katimba plays Nurse.

School Literature Programme

African Romeo and Juliet has been translated into modern English following demand from schools studying Romeo and Juliet as English literature course, except in dialogues between Romeo and Juliet which maintain the Shakespearean language, without altering the concept and directions while maintaining Chichewa in some physical dialogues that are clear even to those not conversant with the vernacular.

According to Chris Nditani, Managing Director of Nanzikambe Arts, this is one of organization’s initiatives for ‘the school’s programme’ whereby it is set to be producing plays tailored for schools depending on the literature that is in the local and international syllabi.

“This is done with the understanding that drama not only accords an opportunity to enlighten students but also gives the students the chance to broaden their critical thinking skills and broaden their knowledge perspectives and IQ levels and that professional theatre.

“Our association with arts can productively used to aid students’ IQ levels to comprehend, analyze and interpret issues affecting them. These skills are necessary for their understanding not only of English Literature as a course but other academic subjects as well,” said Nditani.

Romeo and Juliet was performed at Stratford upon Avon on August 25th alongside And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night which had a three-week run at The Africa Centre in London from July to August 2012.

Nanzikambe Arts is also rehearsing Matter of State authored by Aaron Ngalonde and is being directed by Thoko Kapiri, Nanzikambe’s Artsistic Director. Matter of State, Romeo and Juliet, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night are all set to be performed again during this forth coming festive season of Christmas and New Year.

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