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Love On Trial, Ovalhouse Theatre

Adapted by Roe Lane from the story by Stanley Kenani based on an idea by Amy Bonsall

Directed by Roe Lane, Amy Bonsall and Kate Stafford
Pros: Strong ideas, interesting subject matter and a fearlessly ambitious approach.
Cons: Rather confusing and hard to follow.
Our Verdict: Despite important and relevant subject matter, impressive acting and a thoughtful set, the narrative is tricky to follow and I found it difficult to relate to the characters.
Courtesy of the Ovalhouse
This production deals with relative morality regarding views towards homosexuality in Malawi and the West, and the personal and political consequences of a clash in opinions. It is a story which explores the persecution of Charles Chikwanje who, once outed, became a media spectacle in a ‘god-fearing’ country. The play juxtaposes this story against the scandal surrounding George Michael’s arrest for lewd conduct in a public toilet in the USA. The intent is to show that it is easy to be morally superior, but that the West can be just as bad in its vilification. Betwixt this is an African themed allegory which echoes the old Jewish poem and sentiment ‘and then they came for me’.
With so much going on intellectually, it is important that staging is strong and clear. Unfortunately, the theatrical choices meant that the weave of the piece was chaotic and unsympathetic on the spectator which made it inherently hard to follow despite the fascinating topic.
During my undergrad I delivered a power-point presentation (oddly enough on African playwrights) for which I was graded poorly. In my frustration I managed to wangle a whole five minutes of my tutor’s time between classes and he said that it was intensely interesting, well-researched and that my commitment to the subject was clear – but why was it a presentation rather than a written report? My feelings are the same for this rendition of Love On Trial: why is it a piece of theatre rather than a lecture? The audience is not given enough space to emotionally attach to any of the characters (unlike in the book) which makes the journey a purely intellectual one. The subject matter is definitely worth being discussed – but one of the purposes of political theatre is to elicit the emotional gravity and complexity of events in a clear manner, which we personally may have limited, or no, experience of.
The setting was beautiful and the in-the-round format was aptly symbolic, however it further added to the difficulty of trying to follow which particular character and story was being presented. This was compounded by the constant movement of the actor which prevented moments of reflection in the audience. Instead of being one narrative with many relevant thematic elements, the play ended up being a collation of many interesting ideas all told at once with no time to feel the resonance and magnitude of consequence. This would have made a fascinating lecture but I’m grasping to find reasons to justify it as a piece of theatre in its current format. That being said, the acting skill was impressive, the music well chosen (although the sound levels need adjusting) and it did manage to portray how another country can be anti-gay whilst not justifying these attitudes.
The thing I most admire about this production is its bravery and ambition, which does make it worth seeing in a way. In-the-round is hard. One man shows are hard. Political theatre is hard. Bilimankhwe Arts has attempted courageously to use a plethora of dramatic devices to tell a powerful story which makes me keen to see their other productions. I would go and see a reworked version of Love On Trial – one which is just as fearlessly ambitious but perhaps more focussed.
What do you think about the relationship between emotion and intellect in political theatre? Do you agree with the star rating? Let us know by commenting below!
Love On Trial runs at Ovalhouse Theatre until 24th February 2013.
Boxx Office: 020 7582 7680 or book online at http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/booktickets/loveontrial

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