|Tonderai Munyevu, Denton Chikura, Arne Pohlmeier in rehearsal|
by Frank McKone
March 20, 2013
Two Gents Productions is a cross-cultural theatre company based in London. In Canberra at The Street we are seeing its penultimate program of Vakomana Vaviri Ve Zimbabwe (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, before the company’s final season on international tour in May 2013.
I was fortunate to catch them between performances, wondering how it came about that a freelance director named Arne Pohlmeier has worked with actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu since 2007 on Zimbabwean interpretations of Shakespeare. Why Shakespeare? Why Zimbabwe? And, as it turned out, why Pohlmeier?
Arne Pohlmeier is German born, but spent his childhood in Cameroon, was educated in the US and lives in London. This is the source of his concern with the migration experience. What does it mean to leave one culture and join another?
Travel back to Africa took him to Johannesburg, by this time as a theatre practitioner, where the idea began for a project exploring Shakespeare from a different cultural perspective. Back in London, he found Shona-speaking actors rare. Munyevu had come to London after a childhood in Zimbabwe and still had family connections there. Chikura, after seven years’ insistence by his parents in London that only English must be used at home, came seeking work with much better English than Shona. So the three began work, with little money, but what turned out to be a highly successful idea: Not only were we able to see the production (Vakomana) through a successful run at one of London’s premier fringe venues, the Oval House Theatre; but we were also able to honour invitations to perform at such exciting events as the 10th anniversary Harare International Festival of the Arts; The Market Theatre Laboratory’s 20th anniversary celebrations (in Johannesburg); and the celebrated Shakespeare Festival in Neuss, Germany.
They explained to me that the first production was, in my words, from outside in. The two actors were exploring, in a collaborative style, to find ways of using their Shona traditions to express Pohlmeier’s idea. But in doing this, both Munyevu and especially Chikura had to re-discover their culture, travelling back to Zimbabwe as adults. For Munyevu the experience was more a matter of remembering, than re-learning; but Chikura found that he was treated and felt like a tourist – even having to pay ‘white’ prices because people heard his London-accented English and saw him dressed as an outsider.
Then, as work progressed, the next production became an inside out exploration of Hamlet, starting from the father-son relationships of Shona culture and connecting from that beginning with the story of Hamlet, his father and his uncle.
In this process, a new show telling the personal story of Munyevu’s return to Zimbabwe was devised by the group, called Magetsi. This brings directly home to viewers the traditional storytelling style incorporating dance, voice calls, and drums, as well as words, which is used in the Shakespeare works, now also including The Moors Project focussing on the black characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Othello, the Prince of Morocco from The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus.
There was such a strength of connection between the three as I spoke with them, grown from five years’ working together, understanding their different perspectives and finding such powerful forms of expression on stage, that I was quite shocked to find that Chikura now has a young daughter – to whom he speaks Shona every day – and not only will finish up with Two Gents in May, but will even give up acting in favour of a stable home life instead of touring as an actor must; while Pohlmeier is already working with a new group in Cameroon to explore his childhood experiences through a classical German text; and Munyevu simply says he will be ‘unemployed’.
I’m sure that the skills and experience they have gained over these five years will mean they all have a interesting future to look forward to, and I thank them for a conversation which opened up for me the beginning, the heights of the middle, and the necessary end of a professional and deeply committed theatre company.
www.twogentsproductions.com/ for further reading.