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Review: A Ugandanised Shakespeare by Old Budonians

by Editorial Team
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Play: The Merchant of Venice
Writer: William Shakespeare
Directors: Amelia Mbotto Kyaka, Aganza Kisaka
Showed at the National Theatre and Serena Kampala Hotel (Victoria Hall)
Reviewed by Kalungi Kabuye

I’m not sure what William Shakespeare would make of the production of his play The Merchant of Venice that was put on by Old Budonians and a few friends at the National Theatre last month, March.

First of all, the play is blatantly anti-Jewish, as indeed much of Europe was during that period.

Jews were often required to wear identifying clothes, and could only live in ghettos, away from normal ‘citizens’. But that obviously wouldn’t wash much in Uganda, and the directors rightfully played it down.

In fact what is supposed to be the climax, when Shylock supposedly abandons his Jewish evil ways and turns Christian, must have been missed by many of the sold-out audience on Sunday afternoon when I watched it.

Secondly, during Shakespeare’s days, it was illegal for women to act on stage; female characters were often played by young boys.

So, what would the Bard have made of the electrifying performances of the lead female characters, Portia (Sarah Nansubuga) and Nerissa (Evelyn Mirembe)? They, as Ugandans like to put it, ‘stole the show’.

Joseph Atukunda as Shylock in the play Merchant of Venice performed by Old Budonians at the National Theatre in March. Photo by Kalungi Kabuye

In contrast, the male leads, apart from Shylock (shared by Joseph Atukunda and Patriq Nkakalukanyi), were mostly left to recite their lines.

Mention must be made of Portia’s maid, Balthazar (Ruth Mwima), whose almost silent presence was nevertheless very noticeable.

But first, it was about mental health, and the fact that Atukunda has been battling with mental health issues since he first acted as Shylock in 1987 at King’s College, Budo.

His classmates and fellow Old Budonians have stood by and with him since then, and it was a fitting tribute that before the curtains were raised, video clips were shown of the cast addressing mental health and Atukunda’s story.

It was so effective that when a clip of Atukunda finally came up, there was loud applause from the audience. And more when he finally made his appearance on stage in scene III.

The story of Shylock and his ‘pound of flesh’ is well known, and even those Ugandans that have never read Shakespeare know that Shylock is a bad guy.

A moneylender that cares for nothing but profit, and will do anything to get it. We know of Ugandans moneylenders that hurt those who owe them money, and in some instances to kill them. So yeah, that type.

Sarah Nansubuga as Portia, Brian Byamukama as Bassanio and Evelyn Mirembe as Nerissa in the play Merchant of Venice performed by Old Budonians at the National Theatre in March. Photo by Kalungi Kabuye

Bassanio (Brian Byamukama) wants to court the beautiful Portia (Nansubuga), but has no money. So he goes to his merchant friend Antonio (Sam Kimera) to help him out. But Antonio does not have enough cash on him, so Bassanio borrows from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, the loan guaranteed by Antonio.

But Shylock and Antonio have a nasty history, and the former demands that he will take nothing but a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he fails to pay back the money in three months’ time.

As it happens, Antonio fails to pay, and so the stage is set for that final scene, in which the Jew is shown to be less than human, and where the Christian virtue of mercy is supposed to save the day.

But conversely no mercy is shown to Shylock at the end, and he loses everything, including his daughter; and is forced to convert to Christianity. In fact, someone in the audience loudly remarked, “that’s mob justice!” And indeed so it was.

It was refreshing that there was a minimum of the typically Shakespearean language of ‘thy’, and ‘thee’ and the rest of it. The dialogue was so Ugandan that almost every scene and act got applause; and the audience, which included many school children, clearly understood what was going on.

At the end of the day, it was a brilliant production, and kudos to the cast and crew that put it up.

From the premiere at Serena’s Victoria Hall, to the shows at the National Theatre, it was always a full house. The demand was so high an extra show was included on Sunday evening.

It was also good to be back at the National Theatre after several years, and if Sunday’s attendance was anything to go by, it was the same for many people. Hopefully talk about theatre being dead in Uganda is just that, talk.

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