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Shakespeare in Malawi

Nestled between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia in south eastern Africa sits the small landlocked country, the republic of Malawi. The region has been populated for thousands of years. Religious settlers from Scotland arrived in the area in the late 1800s, having been inspired to spread their mission there by the explorer David Livingston. The area became part of the British Central African Protectorate in 1891, making it part of the British Empire. From 1907 it was named Nyasaland. Modern Malawi, under the leadership of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was formally established in 1964 when it gained independence from Great Britain.


We know that there were active expatriate amateur-dramatic groups in the urban centres of Malawi from the earliest colonial times although they generally put on the West End hits of the day rather than the more serious drama of Shakespeare.


Evidence shows that indigenous students in Malawian colonial schools from at least the early 1930s were studying texts of Shakespeare. Not many of the local population were granted the opportunity to attend school at that time and so it is assumed that knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was limited to a select, educated few.


Unlike many other African countries, once Malawi had been granted independence the study of a Shakespeare text was retained on the new curriculum. First, JULIUS CAESAR, then THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and at present, ROMEO AND JULIET.


The connection of Shakespeare text and school is significant. Malawian academic Patience Gibbs mentions a 1951 production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by the Little People’s Indian School. MACBETH was performed in English in 1958 at Dedza High School, led by the young teacher David Rubadiri. Rubadiri went on to become one of Malawi’s most influential and famous writers. There are numerous other examples of Shakespeare plays being performed by colonial, missionary schools throughout the period prior to independence.


From 1964 Banda led Malawi and he became increasingly autocratic. By 1965 Malawi was a dictatorship and the people subject to strict laws that governed almost every aspect of their lives, even down to what they could wear. There was also state-controlled censorship meaning that every play text had to be submitted to the Censorship Board for approval before any production was allowed to go ahead. One writer whose work did not have difficulty in meeting the requirements set down by the board was Shakespeare.


British academic James Gibbs, who worked at the University of Malawi during the 1960-70s, directed a production of JULIUS CAESAR on the sweeping steps leading down from the University’s great Hall. The parallels between the protagonist and Banda must have been clear to those in the audience. One significant production was Dunduzu Chisiza’s THE DECEASED’S ATTACK (1983). The play was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s HAMLET set in Malawi but using contemporary English. Until Bilimankhwe’s recent production of ROMIO NDI JULIETI (2016), a version of ROMEO AND JULIET translated into the local language of Chichewa by Stanley Onjenani Kenani, THE DECEASED’S ATTACK was the only published adaptation of a Shakespeare play by a Malawian writer. Shakespeare performance then continued to remain the preserve of the expatriate audiences and the educated and elite Malawian population.


Once Banda’s grip on power began to wane and multi-party democracy was established, Malawi became more open to international touring productions, including at least three companies touring Shakespeare. These productions, performed in English, were produced by Western directors who created work that they thought Malawian audiences would be interested in.


In 2003 Kate Stafford (British), Smith Likongwe (Malawian) and Melissa Eveleigh (British) established Nanzikambe Arts in Blantyre, Malawi. The first production was HAMLET, directed by Stafford with an otherwise entirely Malawian cast and creative team. The production was so successful with both the audience and the company that Nanzikambe went on to produce MACBETH (2004) and AN AFRICAN DREAM (2004/05). While all the spoken text was Shakespeare’s original English, original songs were composed in indigenous languages to firmly root the productions in Malawi.


In 2012 Bilimankhwe, the Shakespeare Birth Place Trust and Nanzikambe Arts co-produced ROMEO AND JULIET for production in the UK and Malawi. In rehearsal the director Amy Bonsall and the Malawian company took the decision to experiment with the play by translating some of the script into Chichewa, the most widely spoken of Malawi’s indigenous languages. The production was considered successful and Bilimankhwe decided to support Bonsall in commissioning a full Chichewa translation of ROMEO AND JULIET by renowned Malawian poet Stanley Onjezani Kenani


In April 2016 at Luwinga Secondary School Mzuzu the first Chichewa language production of a Shakespeare play ROMIO NDI JULIETI supported by Mzuzu University, Bilimankhwe and Leeds University was performed by the Mzuzu University Theatre Group under the direction of Amy Bonsall.


Kate Stafford’s production of The Tempest is extending the performance possibilities even further.  The intercultural collaboration between Malawian and British performers in her production provides an arena for innovative, ground-breaking and exceptional performative possibilities.

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