Fela! NT Olivier, London
The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic, London
The Master Builder, Almeida, London
Who was Fela Kuti? Why should we admire him? We never find out, in this gappy, scrappy show
Sunday 21 November 2010
When the pioneering musician and political agitator Fela Anikulapo Kuti died in 1997, his Lagos funeral drew a million mourners.
He was celebrated not only for inventing Afrobeat (ancient West African rhythms interlocked with riffing funk), but also for taunting Nigeria's corrupt, post-colonial military leaders.
In the 1970s, his Lagos nightclub, the Africa Shrine, became a hot spot for satire, and he established a compound called the Kalakuta Republic – a self-proclaimed independent state. In 1977, the commune was invaded by troops who beat and raped its occupants, after which Fela went into temporary exile in Ghana. Returning to continue the struggle, he formed his radical Movement of the People party. He toured globally as well, when not under arrest at home, on drugs and murder charges.
I should confess at this point that I've had to crib some of these facts from the National Theatre's mercifully lucid programme notes, after sitting through Fela! in a state of discombobulation. What an over-acclaimed, garbled affair this proves to be, directed and scrappily co-scripted by the Tony-winning American choreographer Bill T Jones.
NT chief Nicholas Hytner is always keen to blur the line between drama and dance-based shows. Alas, Fela! is no triumph of fusion, but a narratively inept curate's egg. As an athletic dance spectacular, souped up with swirling lights and hectic onstage drumming, it's highly energised, but deeply unengaging.
Sahr Ngaujah's Fela swaggers on as if he's at the Shrine performing a gig, then smirks about his liking for marijuana and womanising, before rather boringly recalling his youth when he played in a band in London. The narrative veers between obscure detail and bewildering gaps. Making out what Ngaujah is saying and singing is tricky too, even when Fela's pidgin English lyrics flash up on the set's corrugated-iron walls.
Ngaujah has some splendidly fiery moments, singing, leaping, and playing the sax with pizzazz. But as the show shuns straight dialogue, there is barely any interaction between characters, unless you count Ngaujah's brush with Paulette Ivory's Sandra in 1960s America. She crudely turns him on to militant activism by rubbing his crotch and raising her other hand in a Black Panther-style salute.
By contrast, at the Young Vic, a staging of Tennessee Williams's memory play, The Glass Menagerie, is subtly experimental. There's a dreamy fragmentariness to the tenement flat where Amanda (Deborah Findlay) and her son, Leo Bill's scrawny Tom, are both prone to escapist fantasies. Their apartment is pointedly theatrical, with Findlay drawing curtains across the space as she gets herself and her chronically shy daughter, Sinead Matthews's Laura, dressed up for their supper date with a gentleman caller. That said, Joe Hill-Gibbins's cast often seem too psychologically sturdy, focusing as they do on the social comedy. I've seen, and preferred, more sensitive revivals.
In Ibsen's The Master Builder, Stephen Dillane's Halvard is mentally on the edge: an ageing architect and unfaithful husband, wracked by fears and guilt. It's as if he is being maddened by his own inner demon when he's suddenly visited by a disturbed, young femme fatale. Gemma Arterton's Hilde draws him to his doom, claiming he promised her castles-in-the-air when she was a pubescent. Now she excitedly insists that he climbs to the perilous pinnacle of a tower.
Their exchanges are so groaning with sexual symbolism and hoary talk of trolls that The Master Builder is heavy-going. Travis Preston's expressionistic production arguably compounds that, with Dillane and Arterton's tête-à-têtes played out as a stylised, almost danced psychodrama. They squat and lean in like satanic imps, her hands oddly twisting like claws.
Thank heavens they're outstanding actors, able to pull this off admirably, even rivetingly at points. Dillane also slips deftly in and out of naturalism, while Anastasia Hille is superb as his amusingly barbed, quietly agonised wife. The modern-day costumes don't fit this play well, Kenneth McLeish's translation mixing contemporary and archaic phrases. Weirdly gripping, all the same.
'Fela!' (020-7452 3000) to 6 Jan; 'The Glass Menagerie' (020-7922 2922) to 1 Jan; 'The Master Builder' (020-7359 4404) to 8 Jan
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