From the beginning, Love On Trial, Roe Lane’s adaptation of Malawian writer Stanley Kenani’s Caine Prize-nominated story, promises to be at least intriguing. A nation-enraging instance of illegal homosexuality in Malawi (sourced from Kenani’s story) is appropriately juxtaposed with the media furore prompted by George Michael’s 1998 arrest for public “lewd conduct”. A one-man show held together by a masterly performance from Bailey Patrick, the audience bear witness as these stories on either side of the world reflect and refract each other without ever coming into contact. An affecting but gently unambitious piece, I was nevertheless left rather exasperatedly wanting more from its thought-provoking premise. Enjoyable as it was, I suspect that it is Lane’s over-fidelity to Kenani’s no doubt brilliant text which means Love On Trial fails to exploit the immediacy of its theatrical form.
Under the clothes-line ‘branches’ of the kachere tree, we encounter a gamut of characters as the two stories unfold. There is the drunken witness to the “unnatural act” – the uproarious Mr. Kachingwe, the accused and inspiringly unrepentant Charles, along with a repellent TV interviewer, George Michael and various others. The exchanges between these characters, and Patrick’s interchanges between multiple roles, are subtle and unhurried, suitably reflective of the rich yet measured tone of Kenani’s writing. Similarly, the pacing of Love On Trial is surprisingly leisurely and actually quite an enjoyable contrast to the typical break-neck speed of some story-telling pieces. Deliberative pauses allow ample space for thought, laughter and genuine shock. Both actor and director clearly invest much consideration into the piece, dealing directly with emotional and social brutalities whilst never over-playing them.
The crux of Love On Trial is undoubtedly Bailey Patrick’s intricate performance of the dozen or so characters, from impartial narrator to George Michael himself. There is something endlessly fascinating about Patrick’s ease in transforming himself entirely, by way of only the slightest altered inflection of voice or a change in posture. With the ability to burst the emotional barometer when proclaiming, “I’m in love with a human being, for god’s sake!” before returning almost immediately to absolute calm, he is an involving and richly rewarding performer who plays warmly and assuredly to the entire audience in the fittingly intimate staging. Despite the all-too-brief running time of the show, Patrick generously allows us immediate emotional engagement with its protagonist – the dignified and eloquent Charles Chikwanje, whose refusal to name his lover is not an evasion of “justice” but a show of love.
Lane’s addition to the text – selected, verbatim quotes from Charles’s counterpart, George Michael – are an undoubtedly useful tool in highlighting that, whilst we Westerners claim moral superiority in our comparatively liberal attitudes to homosexuality, the unsavoury media obsession (even criminalisation) of Michael’s activities may well prove otherwise. Though unfamiliar material of Michael deliberating on the death of his close friend is surprisingly poignant, the additional storyline does seem rather clumsily soldered on, lacking the essential subtlety that enriches the rest of Love On Trial. Sadly, this is not the only place where the show doesn’t quite fit together. The persistent use of audio voice-over consisting of news reports and a traditional folk tale, provided by Edwin Flay and Diana Phiri, seem to offer little more than the chance for Bailey to have a well-deserved rest. Furthermore, the joltingly abrupt ending which may well work to great effect in the story, falls rather short in theatrical presentation and finishes the show, I feel, at least 20 minutes before it should.
Rather than packing the punch it is capable of, Love On Trial sidles off apologetically – leaving us wanting more, but with a sense of frustration at inexplicably unfinished business rather than increased appetite. The fumbled moments of this piece are especially frustrating because there are the makings of a great show here, if only Lane were more willing to build on the text, to even depart from it and so deliver on its potential. There are some illuminating moments of audience participation as Bailey tries to get us to define what exactly a “lewd act” might be. As answers are offered, we becoming discomfortingly aware of the discriminatory way homosexuality is still handled in the media and the court. Yet what Love On Trial lacks is the crucial sense of ‘liveness’ that these moments only promise. Despite its vibrant central performance, it manages to serve more as a great enticement to read Kenani’s story, rather than any real wrangling with the issues that it brings up.
Love On Trial is playing at Ovalhouse Downstairs until 23 February. For more information and tickets, see http://www.ovalhouse.com/