Friday, 22 February 2013

Love on Trial - review

Written by: Naomi Lawson (@NaomiMLawson)

Ovalhouse, London

Any play that begins with a rendition of George Michael’s Faith certainly captures the attention of an audience. And indeed, Bilimankhwe Arts’ Love on Trial is a one-man play about illegal homosexuality in Malawi, another of the Ovalhouse’s Counter Culture commissions, where our attention is gripped throughout.

Adapted and directed by Roe Lane, the play takes its basis from Stanley Kenani’s Caine award nominated short story about the trial and incarceration of a young man from his native Malawi. Lane’s play however, takes this story and runs it in parallel to the media frenzy and trial of singer George Michael after his arrest for conducting ‘lewd acts’ in an LA public toilet. It’s undoubtedly an interesting premise: comparing the ‘primitive’ attitudes of many African countries towards homosexuality, with Western reactions towards the singer’s incident and discovering that in fact there are more similarities than one might think. There are times however when the change of focus to Michael’s case, denoted by a cooler lighting variation (Charlie Morgan Jones) and single performer Bailey Patrick donning a pair of shades, halts the flow slightly, with perhaps better ways by which to integrate the two worlds.

Nonetheless, it’s a praise-worthy production. Aided by Diana Phiri and Edwin Flay as voice overs, Patrick commands the many voices of the tale masterfully. The sole figure on a small, raised stage in the middle of the audience, his storytelling is complemented by the set design (Adam Purnell). A tall pole sits in the middle of the stage with long measures of string stretching out from it. It is on these strings that Patrick pegs up figures of men made from newspaper cuttings: Charles Chikwanje (the man sentenced to twelve years in prison after being caught having sex with his unnamed lover); Mr Kachingwe (an old local man who caught and reported the ‘offense’); Khama Mitengo (the famous presenter who interviews Charles); Maxwell (Mr Kachingwe’s childhood friend, who urges him to stop spreading the story), to name but a few of the characters they represent.  Patrick acts as both narrator and characters, showing a sense of loyalty to the voices in Kenani’s short story (an effort that is clearly important to Bilimankhwe Arts as, on a one-off appearance, the writer is brought on stage to interview after the play).

Patrick switches between these voices with great ease, engaging the audience from the off with not only these portrayals but also by directly addressing the audience at times. This move firmly cements the piece as an ‘issue play’, as we are literally forced to confront the issues that the play discusses. Yet its storytelling nature means it does not feel overly didactic. It draws on comedic and emotional elements throughout, so that as well as being confronted by such issues we are also confronted with real emotion: the playful, humorous nature of Mr Kachinghwe, a man who just wants to gossip and laugh with friends over a drink, to the raw sentiment of a man locked away for simply being in love.

This play is not slick or flashy but it is not required to be, it is an honest look at an issue that is often surrounded by a lot of noise. Love on Trial cuts through this noise with good, funny, touching, but most of all, provoking storytelling, a play that thoroughly deserves your attention. 

This production runs until 23 February 2013. 

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