THEATRE / Cross-currents of darkness: Paul Taylor on Marching for Fausa at the Royal Court and Heart at the Young Vic

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BIYI Bandele-Thomas may be a young, up-and-coming Nigerian writer, with three novels under his belt at the age of 25, but something tells you that Marching for Fausa, his second theatre piece, is not destined to become the toast of Lagos, especially in political and army circles. Set in the fictional West African state of Songhai (which bears a more than passing resemblance to the writer's homeland), the play is a broadly brushed, scathing satire on the insane violations of justice and the crude spread of corruption caused by an unstable, vicious military dictatorship.

In so far as he presents history as a series of cock-ups presided over by clowns (one regime is toppled here before its conceited head of state has even managed to finish announcing martial law), Bandele-Thomas may remind you at times of a less genial Mustapha Matura, or faintly (dare one say it?) of Evelyn Waugh in Black Mischief-mode. His underlying indignation is utterly straightfaced, however, which means that the director, Annie Castledine, has the tricky task of conveying a story that is alternately viewed as farce and felt as tragedy.

This is clear from the first scene which shows us Telani Balarabe (Susan Aderin), a crusading journalist now languishing in chains and sullen, uncooperative silence on death row. The shots from offstage executions strike a grim but oddly absurdist note while, at regular intervals, one of the unseen torture victims, who has gone mad and believes himself to be an itinerant quack dentist, blares out lengthy commercials for a toothpaste he claims can cure everything from boils to rabies.

The play consists of a long, bitty flashback explaining why Telani has landed here. In outrage at the enforced marriage of their classmate Fausa (who is lined up to become the 11th member of the Minister of Culture's burgeoning harem), there is an angry student protest, followed by arrests and presumed killings. Telani covers this and stubbornly asks too many embarrassing questions. In dramatic terms, though, the heroine's major crime is that she's a brave, right-thinking blank and, to help the plot, a pretty inept one at moments. Not such a smart move to skulk around in the Ministry of Culture, swathed in cameras and with the words 'Dauntless Investigative Journalist' virtually tattooed across your face. The only surprise is that she doesn't bring along her own handcuffs.

Annie Castledine's fluent, highly resourceful production serves the impressionistic, snapshot structure well, while the drumming and pensive woodwind in Juwon Ogungbe's music send shivery cross-currents of darkness through the play's gaudy vignettes of moral delinquency - 'consultation fees' for seeing the Minister become the country's highest source of income after petroleum; disguising mercenary chauvinism as health concern, one businessman markets purdah-veils to combat Aids, etc, etc. But even within this broad, satiric convention, there are some improbable lunges of plot and patches of opacity. And Joan Crawford herself would have baulked, you feel, at playing Telani's round-the-clock bitch of a cynical features editor.

The subject of sexual harassment - as habitual an activity in the Culture minister's office, it seems, as touchtyping - crops up again in Heart, the Black Mime Theatre's fitfully powerful show about man-woman relationships. It begins with a display of aggressive, one-sided-looking copulation, the men thrusting like fury, the women staring in detached boredom. That old legal phrase 'intimacy took place' has never seemed a less accurate description of sexual congress. Flitting through tragi-comic scenes of domestic tyranny, marital infidelity, disco pick-ups and smoochy dances where the man seems to be trying to stub out his groin against the woman's bum, the show rises to its bleakly telling best in a stark episode of role-reversal where a woman-playing-a-man beats up a man-playing-a-woman who objects to being date-raped.

Until last summer, the company was made up of two sexually segregated groups. This collaboration, then, is a heartening counter- example to what the show depicts.

Marching for Fausa continues at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court (Box office: 071-730 1745); Heart continues at the Young Vic (Box office: 071-928 6363).

(Photograph omitted)