Theatre: A little black mischief

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The Independent Culture



IMAGINE CARYL Churchill crossed with Mata Hari, given a strong dash of Harriet Beecher Stowe and shifted back in time to the 17th century. It's only by such fanciful-seeming amalgams that one can get the measure of the sheer unexpectedness of Aphra Behn, prolific Restoration dramatist, poet, spy in the Netherlands and author, in Oroonoko, of a prose narrative that - as historian Hugh Thomas put it in The Slave Trade - "was more influential than popes and missionaries" in fostering humanitarian sentiment.

The story she tells is of an African prince, sold into slavery, separated from his lover, and taken to the British colony of Surinam where he inspires a slaves' uprising. Politically betrayed, left with no option but to free his lover from a terrible fate by stabbing her, he achieves real tragic status. The material is inherently theatrical, but it was left to Thomas Southerne to furnish an adaptation which held the stage throughout the 18th century.

All honour to the RSC for bypassing Southerne and teaming Behn up with a contemporary Nigerian-born writer, Biyi Bandele. This gives you a clue about the tone. There's political indignation but a refreshing lack of political correctness in Bandele's version. Gregory Doran's spare yet sumptuous-seeming production is splendidly attuned both to the poeticality and irreverent cheek of this reinterpretation. The Evelyn Waugh of the disgracefully funny Black Mischief seems to be performing a pas de deux with Ben Okri as this adaptation, for the first time, dramatises the African section of the story. In dialogue systematically flecked with contemporary colloquialisms, it pulls you into a world where an ambitious operator like Geff Francis's expertly played Orombo can not only pimp his own pregnant daughterh, but run a lucrative line in supplying slaves to the whites.

As the story shifts to the British colony and to the salacious depredations of the weak deputy governor (David Collings), Bandele has to shed a lot of the impish, undercutting humour. What impresses, though, is that the proceedings never simplify into the black and white (so to speak) of melodrama. It's an excellent touch here that Nicholas Monu's understated hero does not expire in a public execution (as in the Behn) or by heroic suicide (as in the Southerne). Instead, significantly, Oroonoko is shot dead by the most liberal white in the colony. It's a complex, ironic moment because Trefry (Michael Fenner) is only pointing the gun to try to stop the chained- up hero stabbing himself. Is the shooting a split-second act of self-preservation or evidence of a reflex racism still in need of uprooting in the best of us? A powerful evening.