Independent Theatre Company is never one to shirk a challenge when it comes to converting literary classics to the stage.
Creative team Rob Croser and David Roach rise to the challenge, with varying degrees of success, no matter who the author and how far-fetched or diverse the characters. Rarely do they miss completely and mostly their work is creative genius – taking the masterminds of the literary world and applying their own brand of brilliance to the stage works. Always they produce thought-provoking works that are the makings of an intellectual feast.
The latest classic to come under the lights is Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, fascinating in the hands of Croser and Roach.
In this case the adaptation of Cary’s classic novel has already been done by playwright Norman Rosten.
Set in 1920s Africa, it is the story of the meeting of two cultures. The delight of this story lies in the author’s lack of judgement of the characters while at the same time portraying misunderstandings that occur when cultures collide.
Director Rob Croser has blended seasoned actors with complete unknowns and come up with a cast that easily portrays all of the complexities of this small community of British bureaucrats and African natives.
Sheldrick Yarkpai is excellent in the central role of Mister Johnson, a government clerk with grand aspirations. The role is the driving force and Yarkpai rises to the occasion depicting the optimism, high ideals and grandiosity of the lowly clerk with endearing clarity. In his hands it is clear how high ideals can produce tragic results if not rooted deeply in a strong set of values. Yarkpai’s Johnson is forgiven time and time again for bending the rules in the face of strict English regiments. This is because he conveys a heart that is in the right place but a mind that bends the truth and the system in order to achieve the heart’s desires. Arguably this is a dilemma often faced in different walks of life - how to achieve the heart’s ideals in the face of a society that seems set in oppression, or a society’s mores that are alien to our own.
Although Yarkpai’s Johnson is a driving force, Adam Tuominen strikes a real chord as Harry Rudbeck, the Assistant District Officer. Tuominen is outstanding as the young English officer responsible for a small British protectorate in Nigeria in the early 1920s. Once again ideals versus regimen are at stake. Tuominen portrays all of the complexities of Rudbeck’s situation and the young man’s almost daily struggle to juggle the books, the rules, the needs of the African community and his own ideals. This is a multi-layered role that in Tuominen’s hands is alternatively delightful and gut-wrenching.
Stella Chigoziri is sweet and convincing as Johnson’s wife Bamu, who loves her African family and yet is under constant siege by her husband to conform to British standards. Here is a young woman who is also torn between two cultures.
Victor Kamara is persuasive as Bamu’s protective brother Aliu. Kamara is strong and forceful, displaying an amusing derision for his brother-in-law’s English ways.
Kate Wyatt is charming as Harry’s wife, Celia, and Allen Munn ably depicts the English bureaucratic attitude in his role as Bulteel, District Officer.
Saka Runzzie ably portrays a wise and good-hearted friend as Benjamin, and Alice Weia is fine voice as the mother of Bamu.
This play is set in the heart of Africa and the sound, lighting and set design convey the pulsing heartbeat of Africa. At the same time the scene is also set for the early days of British Administration.
Mister Johnson was first published in 1939 and yet, like many classics, its cry for the need to understand people from different walks of life still speak volumes in today’s society.
Independent Theatre presents
by Norman Rosten
adapted from Joyce Cary's novel
Venue: Odeon Theatre | Queen Street, Norwood
Dates/Times: April 23, 24, 28, 29, 30 at 7.30pm, April 25 at 4.00pm, April 27 at 6.30pm, May 1 at 2.00pm and 7.30pm
Tickets: $30 / $25
Bookings: (08)8411 6661