The first thing of note was that I had before me a translation into English from the original Punjabi by B S Parihar Manmohan. It is generally acknowledged that meaning can get lost in translation. And also that different cultural traditions can admit of unfamiliar theatrical norms, such as Chinese Kabuki or Noh theatre, for example. Anecdotally, I was amazed once, watching an opera for the first time in Moscow, when an actor who had sung a moving aria before dying, so to speak, suddenly came back to life, seemingly resurrected by the audience’s rapturous applause, to sing the same aria again. The understanding being that whatever can be conceived and transmitted can be played on stage, with the proverbial suspension of disbelief.
The title, The Red Prophet, initially suggested to me a play about a person, Makhan Singh, driven by divine inspiration to guide others to leftist persuasion, given the received political symbolism of the colour red. However, let us not dwell overmuch on the title: Shakespeare’s King Lear would have been as great a play had it been entitled Silly Old Man.
The play involves 24 characters whose inter-relationships are not made entirely clear. That is a large and potentially costly cast, quite apart from a Chorus of undeclared number, which chants or sings sage, poetic commentary at significant moments. One of the 24 characters, portentously, is Mount Kenya, represented by ‘an old man with African looks’ who serves as a guiding narrator. The mountain speaks and is spoken to and, on the issue of cultural acceptance, I would love to see a typical Punjabi audience’s response to this particular sleight of hand, introduced thus:
Mount Kenya : I am Mount Kenya, have lived a long life. Million years ago, I was a volcano.
So, most of my limbs are singed. Now, I am laden with snow, as I am quite
tall, some 17-18 thousand feet. Beautiful animals dwell in my deep woods.
Planted in the audience itself is the Spectator who, it is ultimately revealed, is Makhan Singh’s son Hindpal. The Spectator is tasked with setting the historical record straight, thus:
Spectator : (Jumping on his seat) You’ve no right to jeer at Makhan Singh.
Khushki : But Sir, this is theatre; just a performance, my dear. None is spared here. Don’t be so emotional!
Spectator : For you it’s a phoney play. For us, it’s a painful reality!
Each scene in the play, out of 18 in all, represents moments in different years or groups of years, or a specific month of a year, or a specific date in a specific month of a year. A director would have to find a theatrical device to make these shifts in time both manifest and comprehensible to the audience, starting with the introductory pronouncement by Mount Kenya in 2008 (understand the year in which the play was first written) and flashing back from 1931 to 1960.
What is manifest and comprehensible to the script reader is that Atamjit Singh is committed to authenticity on two fronts: one historical and the other ideological. In this regard he is largely successful, even if, as a consequence, he is very demanding of his audience’s concentration. But, to my mind, his characters become purveyors of history and ideology with lines such as these, at the expense of being credible, complex and intriguing human beings:
Spectator : Name of the classmate of Makhan Singh at Jamhuri School was Chunni Lal Madan, and he was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of independent Kenya….and the Jamhuri was known as Duke of Gloucester School then.
Chorus : Thanks for this information.
Spectator : Jomo Kenyatta is alright but please also talk of Odinga, who was the country’s first Vice President.
Chorus : His mention is there. Please take your seat.
Makhan Singh : I feel the unity of rats is better than becoming lions. Only then the elephant can be eaten.
And later still…
Makhan Singh : I demand equality, justice and freedom…equality among Africans, Asians and the Europeans… Justice for the workers and freedom for Kenya.
There is always a great challenge in trying to portray a person who has actually lived, especially if that person is larger than life and presumed to be a lesson in right conduct. Muslims deal with this conundrum by simply making it a crime, punishable by death, to represent the prophet Muhammad in any shape or form. Christian believers are more permissive but there have been portrayals of Jesus Christ that even they have found heinous, heretical and worthy of censure. Similarly for such figures as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela, all of whom have been depicted for mass consumption on screen. As for plays, I remember my exposure to George Bernard Shaw’s defiant Saint Joan (of Arc), Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons highlighting Sir Thomas More’s religious stand against England’s King Henry the Eighth and Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, the torch bearer for scientific truth.
Like Atamjit Singh, I confronted this challenge myself in writing Kaggia, a play
about the Kenyan freedom fighter Bildad Kaggia, in 2013. What was he like, I had asked myself? How did he relate to those around him? Would he have said anything vaguely akin to the words I had put into his mouth?
Well, I would readily accept that my Bildad Kaggia was largely a fabrication,
albeit a fabrication informed by research, the better for me to lead my audiences
to reflection on a subject which greatly appealed to me. This admission reopens the contentious debate on the limits of artistic licence. Whenever I read Kaggia again, I am aware of many flaws within it, although I still find that it stays true to my original intention and ‘works’ as pure theatre.
Clearly, Atamjit the writer is in awe of Makhan Singh, all the more so, perhaps,
for his having issued from Sikh lineage, like himself. However, I ask myself
whether the real Makhan Singh ever saw himself as a prophetic figure? Would
he have countenanced being acclaimed, posthumously, as ‘Mungu’ or God, in
Kiswahili? Did he go around pontificating endlessly about the merits of his
political persuasion? And apart from proselytising about the primacy of workers
in society, what did he actually do for Kenya’s trade union movement? How
did he display his intellectual intransigence through action? What occupied his mind during all those years of detention? Was he ever enamoured of an African widow named Atieno, whose consoling charms he found superior to those of his wife, Satwant Kaur?
Atieno : Do you love me?
Makhan Singh : Any doubt? I’m your friend.
Atieno : Then come…give me your love…I’ll return with dividends…I’m drenched in love.
How would a woman with a name like Atieno, linked to the Luo people of Kenya’s lacustrine west have found herself planting and distributing vegetables in the country’s desert north? These questions are not answered adequately, if at all, in Red Prophet. And from the column inches in AwaaZ referred to earlier, the inference is that the real Makhan Singh was more methodical and reserved by nature and did not have the firebrand persona ascribed to him in Atamjit’s play.
From the performer’s viewpoint, any actor wishing to play Makhan Singh in The Red Prophet might be disappointed to discover that it would not be as mentally and physically exhausting an undertaking as playing Hamlet or Peer Gynt because he would have relatively few lines to learn. And nor would Atamjit’s Makhan Singh be the type of conflicted character who invites an actor to interpret him in a unique way, because the playwright leads him constantly to declaration rather than to introspection.
On the page, therefore, The Red Prophet is ambitious in its scope and rich in innovation, including indications of multi-media inputs and, notably, a graphic way of depicting political assassinations in the course of Kenya’s history. However, as a director in search of a play, I would have to put production on hold whilst noting, concerning its text: ‘Epic of scale. Didactic of characterisation. Daunting of process. Difficult of access.’ Which is not to say that I would not go to enjoy it well-performed, by others.
Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu