Fela!, National Theatre: Olivier, London
Thursday 18 November 2010
It's not often that a National Theatre audience gets to shake its collective booty with the cast or finds itself invited to imitate their extraordinary pelvic thrusts in a raunchy "clock" dance.
Traditional demarcation lines are exuberantly, if a tad self-consciously, discarded as the NT plays host to Fela!, the Broadway hit about the Nigerian political firebrand, pioneer of Afrobeat, and polygamist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. A frenetic mix of concert, dance party and crash course in the career of the eponymous maverick, it arrives in the Olivier boasting a terrific 12-piece band, who intensify the music's seductively repetitive rhythms with a lovely laid-back gradualness, and a bunch of knock-out dancers who are the last word in hip-swivelling, butt-brandishing rapture.
The Olivier doubles here as the Shrine, Fela's personal night club in Lagos. It's 1978 and this may be the star's final gig before he leaves Nigeria in despair at his family's treatment by the corrupt military regime. Of course, by his droll references to "our many international guests tonight", he tips us the wink that this is also 2010 at the NT. Hence, there's a fascinating beginner's guide to Afrobeat, "B.I.D. (Breaking It Down"), where he reduces the musical fusion to its constituent elements. Hence, too, the autobiographical format in which, with the aid of projected newspaper headlines and documentary film footage on Marina Draghici's over-busy set, he recaps the major turning points in his career. These include his radicalisation by a Black Power girlfriend in Los Angeles in 1968 and his demoralisation by the murder of his beloved, activist mother during a recent brutal military raid on his compound.
Rarely offstage, Sahr Ngaujah (the sole import from the original Broadway cast) delivers a bravura performance of almost insolently natural magnetism and witty sexual swagger. The show itself, though, is of variable quality. The best bits, for me, were those that make you feel on your pulses why Fela's music, with its sarcastic pidgin lyrics and obstinately insistent rhythms, posed such a threat to the government. That's the case with the staging here of "Zombie" where the satire on the mindless robotic conformity of the generals and their lackeys is reinforced by the loony parodic goose-steps in the choreography.
The worst parts are those that expose how close the show comes to unchallenged hagiography. All the unsavoury aspects of this homophobic, anti-feminist sybarite have been airbrushed from the record. And while it might be anachronistic to drag up his 1997 death from an Aids-related illness (he thought condoms were "un-African") during the main body of the piece, I felt uneasy about the continuing silence on the topic when the casket of an Aids fatality featured in an up-to-date parade of the coffins of victims of injustice (including Stephen Lawrence and Ken Saro-Wiwa) that pile up as an indictment of corrupt authority at the end. For these reasons, I'm a less than entirely devoted worshipper at the Shrine.
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