Theatre: Oroonoko lives again
Biyi Bandele is writing a new play, has another on tour and his version of Aphra Behn's History of the Royal Slave is in rehearsal at the RSC. Somehow he found time to talk to
Wednesday 24 March 1999
Enter Biyi Bandele - 31 years old, born and raised in Nigeria, nurtured for the past decade on these shores. Bandele has what it takes, apparently, to bring to full-bodied life Behn's travelogue of her experiences on the one-time English colony of Surinam, an account described by Hugh Thomas, in his acclaimed history The Slave Trade, as being "more influential than popes and missionaries" in helping the abolitionist cause.
Attempts have been made to dramatise Oroonoko before. The Irish playwright Thomas Southerne shaped it into a popular tragicomedy not long after it was published in 1688; his version was subsequently edited into a more strident piece by David Garrick. But neither of them occupied himself with the first half of Behn's tale, set in a part of west Africa at that time called Coramantien, from which the noble prince Oroonoko is seized and carted off to South America, where he eventually dies along with his beloved Imoinda, after leading an abortive uprising in the Surinam plantations. The forthcoming Bandele production, directed by Greg Doran at The Other Place, tackles both parts of the story for the first time.
It might be imagined that this writer, himself the descendant of a returned slave, will have clear-cut sympathie, his main concern being to embellish Behn's second-hand descriptions of life in Coramantien using a vibrant palette of indigenous traditions. His adaptation of Chinua Achebe's novel about the impact of colonialism on a tribal community, Things Fall Apart - shown two years ago and currently on a UK tour - proved Bandele's knack for earthy authenticity of tone. (It's no surprise to learn that he is currently dreaming something up for those intelligent clownsters Told by an Idiot.) Oroonoko will again boast wild drumming, dancing, music and song - this time, influenced by Yoruba rather than Ibo culture - but there is no danger of these elements being used unthinkingly.
Sitting in a bar near his Brixton home, the softly-spoken writer explains: "I want to give the audience an idea of the complex society from which Oroonoko came, not some false nostalgia trip. Unlike Garrick, I'm not setting out to show the evils of slavery. That was relevant for his time but it's taken as read now. The play I've written has slavery at its heart, but it's also a simple story about a man and a woman, and how everything around them conspires to frustrate their love." Bandele foregrounds the duplicity of the Coramantien court. Where Behn and Southern describe Oroonoko being captured by English wiles, Bandele presents it as the plan of one of the king's servants. Where Behn is awe-struck by Oroonoko's grace and good breeding, Bandele finds him "deeply flawed. He refuses to have an independent mind. That's what lands him into slavery."
For Simon Reade, the RSC's literary manager, the lack of sentimentalising is refreshing: "If you're a white liberal, you beat your chest and say mea culpa. There is no bleeding heart at the centre of this." This detachment courts controversy, none the less, and Bandele admits as much: "It's not going to make me popular, but I'm not interested in the philosophy of blaming someone else. I find that dishonest. It's important to say `I am the author of my destiny'."
It's hardly surprising to hear him talk like this. Growing up in Kafanchan, in the Muslim north of the country, from an early age he expressed strong independence. He left home at 12, and paid his way through secondary school, reading voraciously. He was driven by a thirst for experience that stemmed from a realisation, at the age of seven, that he wanted to write. "I had this romantic notion of what it meant to be a writer, so I managed to get myself into situations that were pretty dangerous. Not because I was deprived - my family is middle-class - but out of pure naivety."
By his mid-teens he was running 32 betting houses in an area where gambling was illegal. What put a halt to his entrepreneurial zeal was an incident at a party: "Someone took the opportunity to introduce a knife into my back," Bandele says, encompassing a typically orotund phrase with one of his characteristically long chuckles. Though miraculously unharmed, he decided to pack it all in and went down south to enrol on a drama course at the University of Ife. It was while he was there that he penned a play, Rain, which he submitted to a British-Council-run international playwriting competition. It won, earning the 22-year-old an invitation to Scarborough for the National Student Drama Festival in 1990 and the eminent support of Stephen Jeffreys and Alan Ayckbourn. When he got offers to publish two early novels, he decided to stay, flinging himself into a Bohemian bed-sit existence in Kensal Rise.
His plays to date have all been set in Nigeria. They carry with them the sense of his former maverick lifestyle, populated as they are with charming charlatans and affable, self-mythologising villains. Their behaviour is presented for enjoyment rather than judgement. Words of a "pessoptimist", their author says. Rain was rewritten as Two Horsemen, a morbid, jokey dialogue between two friends in a dirty room. Marching for Fausa was a satire about all-engulfing corruption. Its follow-up, Resurrections, presented the bizarre spectacle of a drug-dealer rising from the grave to become his country's saviour. Death Catches the Hunter portrayed a shaman who demonstrates his powers by going to tame a lion, only to get eaten. His most recent work, Thieves Like Us, dealt leniently with two bar-room scamsters.
Coming from a country that Chinua Achebe has described as "one of the most disorderly nations in the world", Bandele sees no reason to be a "political playwright". "You only have to represent what you see to be political," he says. He is beginning to turn his authorial attention more towards his new home. His latest novel, The Street, puts Brixton through a "phantasmagorical" prism. At the moment he feels no urge to return to Nigeria, but intends none the less to write a trilogy about Lagos. "It was like riding a rapid. I was swept along with no time to contemplate," he says of Nigeria. He has plenty of time to contemplate these days. And we're only just beginning to feel the benefit.
`Oroonoko' previews at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 295623) from 7 Apr; `Things Fall Apart' to Sat, Theatre Royal Plymouth (01752 267222), then touring to Bristol Old Vic and Derby Playhouse. `The Street' is to be published by Picador
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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