Malawi is not a country that makes it often into the news, or onto the international theatrical stage for that matter. So, Bilimankhe’s production ‘Love on Trial’, currently showing at Oval House, is a very happy occasion.
‘Love on Trial’ is a production based on the award-wining Malawian writer Stanley Kenani’s short story of the same name, shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2012.
The story itself was inspired by the equally notorious case of Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, two Malawian men who came to international attention when they were arrested for allegedly getting married. A state of affairs – anathema to many in Malawi’s ostensibly conservative society – which led to a trial, an international outcry, and the eventual sentencing, then commution of the (life imprisonment) sentence on both men. Love on Trial then is a play dealing with homosexuality in Africa, but with a conceptual twist.
The play ties two events, the trial of a gay man in Malawi, with the real life story of international pop star and singer George Michael’s arrest for Lewd and indecent behaviour in Los Angeles, and the subsequent media furore. The objective was to draw parallels between supposedly enlightened western attitudes to sexuality, and supposedly conservative African societies. Unfortunately, the conceit is not particularly successful.
George Michael’s story seems randomly superimposed onto Kenani’s strong and cohesive story – it gives the impression that the directors weren’t entirely confident that the story of a young, African man trapped in a Kafkaesque morality trial because of his sexuality was enough to sustain the interest of a western audience. That’s a shame, because it’s the Malawian story that proves the strongest part of this play. Bailey Patrick, who plays most of the characters, does so masterfully, skilfully handling the moments of interactivity, when members of the audience replied to ostensibly rhetorical questions.
He is especially entertaining when shifting between the various characters involved in this Malawian morality tale, including a town drunkard, an ambitious TV host, and the unfortunate young man caught inflagrante delicto with another man and subjected to trial both by law and television.
The production makes full use of a beautifully evocative set and props – a set of paper puppets conjures up a village, a chair stands in for a court room, and hot, rural Malawi, complete with trees, boredom and entertainment by radio is effectively evoked. Frequently drawing parallels with the real life stories of arrest and sexual different in Malawi, Love on Trial is a sensitively handled adaptation, which would benefit from a longer run – and dropping (or improving the intertexuality of George Michael’s story).
Love on Trial raises some disturbing ideas about the moral dependency created by Aid money, and the treatment of sexual difference in conservative societies but these moral questions don’t undermine the central, powerful drama of this play about one man standing up for the right to be himself.
Bilimankhe Arts is a company that operates both in the UK and Malawi, so one hopes that this production will be further developed and make its way to Malawi and gain a longer run on a London stage.
In the meantime, if you can, it’s well worth seeing.
Dele Meiji Fatunla