Ward Minnis' The Cabinet

Ward Minnis' new play, The Cabinet, is a popular success. It's got a sure-fire premise, being a cynical look at party politics. Never mind that the action is set in the fictional "Archipelago Islands", featuring the leaders of the Peas N Rice (PNR) party and the Flamingos; the audience all know Minnis is talking about The Bahamas. Moreover, he's providing us with a thinly disguised take on the recent general elections in 2002 and 2007, with the Flamingos' fall from power (carefully engineered by Reginald Moxey, their leader, played by Chigozie Ijeoma) and the ascension of the PNR, led by Jerome Cartwright (Ward Minnis), and then Moxey's return to power thereafter.It's got a ghost for good measure, and it doesn't hurt that it's of a dead Prime Minister—the late Sir Lymon Leadah (Ian Strachan). It's got a sweet but ineffectual stand-in for power, Kendrick Johnson (played by Matthew Wildgoose), a conniving and manipulative female sidekick, Latoya Darling, M.P., played by Sophie Smith, and a defeated second-in-command, Fenton Green (Arthur Maycock). It's got laughs. It's got some seriously clever moments. It's got a solid premise—that the ghost of Sir Lymon Leadah helps to engineer a dastardly plan to allow Reggie Moxey to "keep his word and break it at the same time". It's got conflict. It's got characters, and it's solidly acted to boot. It's a play, and a funny one at that.But.When I go to the theatre, I want to be entertained, yes, but I want to be captivated too. I want to be removed from my everyday life by more than the darkness of the theatre; I want to be told a story that surprises and delights (or appals, if it's that kind of play). I want to enter a different world.And this is where The Cabinet fell short for me. The story was just too familiar. Now I may be in the minority here, but if I'm going to spend two hours and twenty minutes at a live production, it'd better deliver a little more than just laughs. I'm looking for a story that tells me something new; I'm looking for a play that goes beyond naked predictability.To be fair, the first five scenes of The Cabinet promised something more. These are the scenes in which the dramatic tension is building, and even though the story is familiar, the spin placed on it is fresh enough to intrigue. Lymon Leadah's ghostly appearance to a drunken Reginald Moxey makes for a strong beginning, and the vulnerability of Moxey at that moment is a strong way to start a tale about an almost-dictator and his machinations. As those machinations unfold, moreover, and Moxey attempts to propose his plan to the bumbling Kendrick, the tension builds; for Kendrick isn't as much of a pushover as Moxey expects, and Matthew Wildgoose's Kendrick reveals a self-deprecating integrity that inspires a sliver of respect along with our laughter at his muddles. To this point, the Archipelago Islands are not The Bahamas, and we are willing to accept that different things might happen there.Jerome Cartwright, Kendrick Johnson and others may be inspired by real people in our political past, but Matthew Wildgoose and Ian Strachan in particular make it clear in their protrayals that they are not actually pretending to be Tommy Turnquest or Lynden Pindling onstage. What lets the play down is the character of Reggie Moxey, who can be nothing but Hubert Alexander Ingraham in disguise; Ijeoma's playing of it, which consists of an extremely clever impersonation throughout, leaves no doubt. And thus the damage is done. Instead of leading the audience to invest in a story that may parallel our own but has enough twists in it that we are pushed beyond the everyday, the play simply goes over well-trodden ground.After the opening, then, it is too easy to let one's focus slip. If one knows recent Bahamian history, there's no tension at all. There's no subtext, there's no suspense. The only reason to remain sitting in the audience is to see what gems the writer and the actors will deliver next.And this is a shame, because although there are gems throughout—such as when Cartwright, the Leader of the Opposition/then Prime Minister/then Leader of the Opposition, waxes eloquently off into neverland ("I have consulted extensively and attenuated bureaucracy"), or when Moxey delivers lines that are well known from other, more famous contexts, such as "I have heard the voice of the people. Who am I to argue with the will of the people?"—the writing alone cannot sustain one's full attention. What happens instead is that the actors—Ijeoma in particular, but Minnis himself at times—take refuge in the easy laugh to bring the audience back on board.There are issues with the production as well. Some of these may come down to the script itself, which starts well but loses its way in the middle, and never quite recovers its equilibrium thereafter. After the set-up, the dramatic tension lags as the result of too many small scenes going nowhere fast. This could have been addressed both by judicious trimming of fat that didn't move the story along, and by intercutting one scene with another to pick up the pace and add layers of activity. The real question, it seems to me, is how Reggie Moxey is going to pull off the sleight of hand that enables him to run for more than two terms while at the same time gaining the trust of the citizenry; the main conflict, as written, is between Leadah and Moxey in a game of political wits. The play would have been made even stronger if Moxey's adversaries were not so one-dimensional, if there seemed to be some doubt, even though the audience "knows" the story, that he would succeed. Instead, we appear to have to take it for granted that because Ingraham always gets his own way, Moxey must as well.Other issues come down to technical choices. There's no real need, for instance, for there to be a blackout after every single scene, especially when there are three playing areas onstage; actors can simply cross from one location to another without losing momentum. Such a strategy would also have eliminated the need to find so much scene-change music, much of which seemed to have very little to do with the story at hand.More thought could certainly have been given to the layout of the stage, which had Reggie Moxey's dining table centre stage, necessitating its movement upstage and downstage to keep it from blocking the other playing areas. Given that there are two political parties represented, and two political leaders, it would have made perfect sense to have set the leaders' homes stage right and stage left, leaving centre stage as the Prime Minister's office; a simple platform would have elevated that office and resolved sight issues all at once.Those who attended The Cabinet over the last two weekends and enjoyed it may find these criticisms picky, even petty. They are necessary, though, because the play itself has so much going for it. It's got the story, it's got the characters, and it's got the timing to make it succeed for the moment. But what it should be looking to do is to last, to be able to be revived, not at the end of the month, but in five or ten years' time, and produced by a different cast doing different things. This is, after all, a play, something that has characters in conflict with one another working to achieve catharsis in its audience. And I'm afraid that under those circumstances it's not enough to write a play that inspires us just to laugh. What is required is the production of a funny work that also gets us to think.