I saw Tangled Web last night. What I’m attempting here is not a review (though I believe that works of art benefit from critical assessment) but a reaction. A review would require note taking, probably a second viewing, certain tools in terms of how theatre works and should work beyond what I possess. So I come to this merely as a viewer with a fair-to-strong literary background, and full disclosure that I’ve worked with both key players involved in this production Dorbrene O’Marde (the original writer and director of both the original, I believe, and the revival) and Zahra Airall (co-producer and one of the stars of the revival, and a descendent of some of the original players; reportedly, her parents met and fell in love during their Harambee days).
So, where does that leave us?
Well, a synopsis is in order, I suppose.
Tangled Web was originally staged by Harambee in 1979 and drew on real world political turmoil in our little Wadadli as the backdrop for what is at once a domestic, political, and philosophical drama. Domestic in the sense that, with the exception of a restaurant scene, it never moves physically beyond the home of the main characters and the larger world issues mangling their country plays out in their lives within that space. Political in that it ropes in to that domestic drama the disillusionment born of elected leaders and public servants not living up to their promise to the people, the disaffected falling to crime, destroying the youth of the country in the process, the teachers’ strike making headlines at the time, or maybe just in its immediate rear view, the way partisanship can destroy familes, the politics and economics of healthcare, and so on. In the play, forgive me for not remembering the characters’ names, we first meet a young engaged couple with nothing but love in their eyes, flirtation in their hearts, and no bigger concern than their pending wedding. There is no family turmoil to see here; the nuptials even have the blessing of the family patriarch, a man so noble he rejects his oldest friend’s tempting efforts to lure him into a quick money haul just by looking the other way as a drug deal goes through – rejects in spite of the play establishing quickly, by virtue of his roonkachook car, that he could use the money. Then the unseen matriarch of the family takes sick and quickly dies, the disillusioned patriarch turns drug don and quickly moves on to a new moll, his daughter and her friends, young teachers, lose their innocence as the government brings down the hammer on all dissent, and before long everyone is compromised, including the daughter who must make the uneasy decision to turn her father in to the authorities.
Tangled Web, the title, suggests that this is a morality play (“what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”), and certainly it raises deep philosophical questions re the nature of corruption. Who is more corrupt, the young police following the orders of the higher ups, the politicians who have forgotten their contract with the people, the sycophants who treat them like gods, the little man who realizes that when you’re an ant in a land of gods you can’t win and so you might as well, to parrot a King Obstinate calypso, “get what you can, get what you can, get”?
It had me thinking of how we judge the headline making machinations of the powerful rarely stopping to consider our role, small though it may be, in the corrupt process – the small ways so many work the system because they’re convinced the system doesn’t work and they must live. I mean, it’s not the same, right? But is the play right that you’re either guilty or not, that there are not degrees of guilt, just as, as the patriarch points out there are not degrees of pregnancy, you’re either pregnant or you’re not. It’s debatable…after all at nine months you’re all the way pregnant in a way that you’re not at one month, when other options are still available to you. It’s a discussion worth having though, if we are to move beyond the cess pool of corruption, and yet one we’ll probably never have – not if it requires proper self-examination.
I mean, how else to make sense of the fact that more than 30 years after its original staging – like the pointed lyrics of a Shelly Tobitt-Short Shirt calypso – the play remains alarming relevant as if to say, look at yourselves, how have you advanced? Are we still not concerned about political corruption and police overreach, are we still not torn apart by partisanship at the expense of nationhood, has the drug problem not gotten worse instead of better, are people not still dying for lack of resources, are teachers not still at loggerheads with government over the VERY SAME ISSUES expounded in the play (so much so that when the activist character played by Airall bloodied but not beaten lays out the state of affairs and rallies for freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, the ripples of resonance moved like a wave through the crowd, and it was a crowd, relatively speaking, spilling from under the tent at the University Centre) …what have we learned in the generation of more since the heyday of Harambee.
Makes you think.
And maybe that’s why they decided to do it now, not an adaption, not an update, but the original as is, as if as an indictment.
Does it hold up in other ways? That was my other musing on leaving.
The loud ringing of the rotary phone was jarring. The way gender roles were allocated – the daughter always serving everyone, for instance – felt dated. But then perhaps our gender politics have not advanced much beyond the 1970s, after all, when during a tiff between the young lovers an audience member (a female audience member) was overheard (hopefully jokingly) to say to the man “put down you foot!” we have to wonder how far we’ve come.
On that point, the most troubling marriage in the whole thing was the just-back-from-their honeymoon other couple – he an up and coming establishment type while his wife quickly turned to activism. It bothered me, I’m not going to lie, when he didn’t go to pay her bail because politics (seriously?) and when when she came in looking like she’d barely made it through a war he was still so up in his feelings, he couldn’t kindle a bit of concern for her state (was that realistic?)… then again battered as she was and, so they said, tranquilized, and she was still allowed to leave the house to get home (though we didn’t see her call a taxi and know there wasn’t any cell phone for her to do so off screen in those days) …never mind that a heavily pained and again, tranquilized woman was allowed to leave to spend the night on her own at all… remember her husband was off to the club… suspension of disbelief… or maybe for some it happened just like that… in which case…rough.
But, okay, to sum up… I think the best performances were given by the man playing the father… his monologue after being turned down by the politician and chief medical officer, and the scene where he takes the reins from his friend in crime were stand out moments for him… and Zahra…though initially I felt she was too much in a sea of relatively sedate performances, in time that spirit caught up with the moment as referenced earlier.
I got restless and distracted at times which suggests to me that for me at least the running time could have done with some trimming, and the story with some tightening. There were moments listening to the dialogue where it felt like something a writer might write, and write well and with purpose, but not like something people might actually say, which is to say that the conversational tone was sometimes sacrificed to the and-the-point-is (didacticism over artistry).
But you know what, those critiques aside, it was a good night for a number of reasons. On a personal note, for those of us who know of Harambee and theatre’s hey day in the abstract moreso than in reality, it was a nice call back to what had been, and twinning with a descendent of that legacy in bringing it back to the stage for a two-night engagement, a positive sign of what may yet be. An odd moment of resonance with that time for me was when the plane (LIAT, is that you?) flew over head reminding me of the atmosphere I’d read about long long ago, and when the audience started shouting back to the characters on the stage – players in the drama unfolding before them – a reminder of of all places, the days of old Deluxe movie theatre, the only theatre most of us grew up with, with its sticky floor and audience interacting with the screen before we became too sophisticated for such things, I guess. That is to say that there was about it, a sense of there-ness, a sense of community. And speaking of community, pat yourself on the back for coming out to support in your numbers, because, hello, who says theatre is dead.
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Fish Outta Water, and Musical Youth). All Rights Reserved. Seriously, a lot of time, energy, love and frustration goes in to researching and creating content for this site; please don’t just take it up just so without even a please, thank you or an ah-fu-she-subben (credit). If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.