Oedipal complexes, Nigerian style

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A new wave of black British theatre is making it into the commercial West End this year, with the Hackney caff drama, Elmina's Kitchen, and Stratford East's ska musical, The Big Life, both drawing new crowds.

Meanwhile, in the east-end, The Gods Are Not To Blame is a strong fringe revival of a more traditional piece of Nigerian theatre. Ola Rotimi's 1968 adaptation of Oedipus Rex - directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr - picks up on cultural parallels between the Ancient Greeks and the Yorubas. It's staged in a kind of African amphitheatre: a wide circle, warmly-lit, covered in grass matting and surrounded by cushions.

Elufowoju's vibrant ensemble sing and dance their way into the story, in tribal dress. A ritualistic priest shakes a stick topped with bells. The aged king, Adetusa, follows in a pointed hat decorated with skull-like faces. Later, after this chieftain's unsolved murder and a period of civil unrest - mimed in slow motion with machetes - a stranger arrives. Mo Sesay's Odewale saves the people from starvation by urging them to improve their lot. He is hailed as their new king and marries the bereaved queen, according to custom.

Failing, of course, to recognise his long-lost mother, he whirls like a happy dervish at his coronation. In Rotimi's version, extra narrative threads emerge involving vicious inter-tribal prejudices and battles over farmland - sadly, still relevant to Africa today.

The plot does not exactly keep you on the edge of your seat, as this playwright prefers broadly alternating between life's joys and woes to sharply tightening the knot around the royal criminal's neck. The narrator's pre-recorded voice-over is peculiarly naff, as if we've boarded a guided coach tour to parricide and incest. I was also wilting in the heat, with 60-plus lights rigged just above the audience's heads. Yet composer Akintayo Akinbode's chants are hauntingly mournful and beautifully sung. The ancient seer (played by Nick Oshikanlu) is a surprisingly exuberant clown, pouting and shouting blue murder as he is carted off by Odewale's men. Golda John's Queen Ojuola has one touchingly innocent scene with her husband-son, tickling him as he lies beside her. Sesay also firmly charts Odewale's journey from a pragmatic man, with a simmering temper, to a paranoid dictator. An admirably assured, if not a searing performance.

To 2 July, 020 7503 1646

Comments