The great poet said that the world is a stage. All the men and women are merely players, with their exits and entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts.
This melancholic soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like aptly captures the life and times of Kenya’s Phoenix Theatre. In Shakespeare’s estimation, the many parts of a man’s life boil down to seven ages. If the seven ages are infancy, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantalone (pant alone) and old age, Phoenix Theatre has gone through it all – and back again. Indeed, the very name Phoenix says it all. After the mythical Greek phoenix, this troupe has had its numerous births, infancies, panting alones, deaths and resurrections. This bird has died to rise and risen to die and rise again some other day. For having died before in 2009, the Nairobi based theatre came back to life again. Yet its short-lived demise in 2009 was not even its first encounter with death. It might be too soon to pronounce this theatre dead. Yet, it is presently either panting alone, or dying again or – maybe – dead. But make no mistake, this is a phoenix, it could still rise again.
Depressing press reports have indicated this week that auctioneers on Wednesday descended on the Phoenix Theatre at the Professional Centre with tongs, anvils and hammers. After the fashion of Shylock the harsh Jew in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they came to collect their pound of flesh, in rent arrears. They ferreted away theatre costumes and props. They locked up the place. Such is the call of distress. It afflicts the best of us – and especially in the arts. Kenyans will recall the struggles that such iconic artistic edifices as Elimo Njau’s Paa Ya Paa and Gallery Watatu have had to reckon with in the past, in the quest to keep both themselves and the arts alive. In its present predicament, therefore Phoenix is not alone. Nor is this story new to this troupe, as we have said.
The Phoenix story is a long and turbulent one. It goes back to the 1940s, when British soldiers began arriving in the then Kenya Colony after World War II. They came here to take up their rewards for the war effort, through the colonial office. Annabel Maule, in the volume titled Theatre Near The Equator: The Donovan Maule Story, recalls how her father, Major Don Maule, arrived in Mombasa in 1947, aboard SS Ascanius with the singular mind of setting up a repertory theatre on the Equator. And he did not come alone. For with him was his wife, Mollie. The two would become household names in theatre in Kenya, all the way to the early 1980s, in the golden age of the Donovan Maule Theatre. The life and times of the Donovan Maule Theatre inform part of Phoenix’s seven ages. Then, like now, it was not always plain sailing. Plays would be produced and performed to great acclaim. Yet the sheen on the stage and cheer in the theatre was not always matched with sterling accounts in the banks. Preeminently, it was always a matter of dents in the rents.
As early as 1949, The East African Standard lamented, “Here we are with four partially filled picture houses as our evening entertainment. Even when the show is in aid of (something) the Maules have to be content with matinees. Cannot something, even if it is only an ex-army hut on a suitable site, be put at the disposal of those who are prepared to entertain us in person?” The East African Standardwriter was grieved that the artistic revelers then – almost exclusively a European expatriate population – trooped into the movie cinema houses while few watched plays, or even cared about where the dramatic troupes were housed, if they were housed at all.
Fast-forward to 1980 and Donovan Maule Players are perfectly in the sixth phase of their thespian life. They are panting alone, lifting the curtain to their seventh age. Within the self-same stage are seeded the Phoenix Players. The Donvan Maule troupe closed its books of accounts for 1979 with a whopping loss of KSh. 8.7 million, according to Annabel. By the start of 1981 James Falkland, the administrator, had begun thinking ahead. He was seeing the ashes of the DM Players and the emergence of the Phoenix from the ashes. He began prospecting for shareholders for Phoenix Players Ltd (In Formation). The owners of Donovan Maule – they were called Theatre Arts ’80 – however dug in for the long haul, pledging to inject more funds into the company.
Regardless, Phoenix was going to be born – and with lots of congenital problems carried over from Donovan Maule. Theatregoers of the ’80s will recall press reports of the night of long knives between Phoenix and Theatre ’80. It was one long story of love and hate. They seemed to agree today, only to differ grossly tomorrow. They led Nigel Slade, the lead arts writer at The Standard to write on 23 October 1982, “It needs more than cash to save DM.” At the apogee of friendships, suspicions and a doze of betrayals, James Falkland formally resigned in May 1983. The sun set on Donovan Maule. Phoenix was born.
Donovan Maule closed down after 35 years. Phoenix has shut down after 34. The congenital problems with which Falkland migrated from Donovan simply refused to go away. Yet, to its credit, Phoenix opened up the space to local talent, even if the repertoire has remained hugely exotic. Lupita Nyong’o, Ian Mbugua and Jean Gachui stand out in the talent pool. Others are Loice Abukutsa, Steve Mwenesi and the late Sam Otieno.
The financial sword of Damocles has for sometime now hung precariously above Phoenix. The alarm bells have gone off fairly frequently. Yet, it is a huge tribute to Ian Mbugua that Phoenix has come this far. He has strived, sometimes almost desperately and singularly to keep the repertory character of the theatre alive. He has introduced seasonal tickets, put up many plays and sought a solid board of directors. Yet it has remained difficult to stay afloat.
The one huge lesson from Phoenix is that repertory theatre can be very difficult to sustain. Here, of course, we understand repertory theatre to be a permanent company established in a regular home and performing exclusively in that place. There are all manner of establishment costs and allied challenges. In their heyday, Donvan Maule included the travelling strand in their theatre. They toured the entire country from Mombasa to Nanyuki and Kisumu to Kitale, staging plays to great praise and reasonable benefit.
If they would adopt this model, the Phoenix team could carry on, even under some other guise, and do just as well as they have always done. Indeed, they could even do better, without the regular stresses of establishment costs. The notion was always of course that they wanted to have a regular home within the traditional English repertory model. At the apogee of their financial challenges, in 1979, their precursors attempted all manner of survival tricks, from annual subscriptions to temporary memberships for those who wanted to patronize their bar for drinks and other refreshments. It did not work. Phoenix tried the same model. It has not worked. The lesson is increasingly that the theatre is the troupe and not the building. It is not even the corporate entity that is now in trouble. The artistic dream must overwhelm all these other concerns. When buildings, physical spaces and sundry structures want to leave us, we should allow them to go. For this is the time to say with Ted Kennedy when he bid his brother President Kennedy his final farewell, ” The cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.” The theatre ought to outlive physical edifices and troubled corporate entities.
This article was first published in the Standard on Saturday 22 April 2017.