Triumph over bitterness

Theatre: The Beatification of Area Boy; West Yorkshire Playhouse
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The Independent Culture
The brutal contempt of Nigeria's military government for its country's writers was doubly in evidence this Tuesday. First came the news that, after what is diplomatically termed "A flawed judicial process", the death sentence had been passed on the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of many activists jailed during the past year by the opposition-crushing Abacha regime.

Then, in the evening, there was the world premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse of The Beatification of Area Boy, the latest play by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. Sub-titled "A Lagosian Kaleidoscope" and set among the stalls on a street corner outside an opulent shopping plaza, this populous tragicomedy dramatises a day in the life of the post-oil- boom capital. The play was expressly written to hold up a satiric mirror to the society it depicts, where rival gangs of protection racketeers make parking a car a costly and precarious nightmare and where a community of a million people (like that of Maroko) can wake up to find the military firing their settlement off the face of the earth.

But the works of Soyinka, who in his enforced exile has launched a council dedicated to the overthrow of the Abacha government, don't (to put it mildly) enjoy official favour at the moment in his native country. Hence the irony that it's a Leeds audience rather than a Lagos one before whom The Beatification has had to be unveiled, though Jude Kelly's Courtyard production includes seven Nigerian actors.

What is remarkable about the play, in the circumstances, is its refusal to get bogged down in bitterness. The spirit animating it is properly outraged, but also generous and resilient, and this comes over strongly, as does Soyinka's love for a people whose failings he knows all too well. It can't be denied, though, that there are a number of problems with the staging. Presumably because it was unfeasible, the production has dropped the idea, suggested in the text, of reflecting the passing scene on the sliding tinted-glass doors of the shopping plaza. It does not come up with any arresting alternative for giving off-stage events impact, so the key sequence where the hordes of Maroko refugees are imagined trudging by feels curiously weightless.

Weak links in the cast don't help, either. In the important role of the vagrant, struck-off judge, who has escaped into a grandiloquent world of his own, Wale Ojo just looks like a young man vainly pretending to be an old one. It's only in the aborted wedding festivities in the final act that the production truly takes off. To be fair, much of the material needs the laughter of recognition to bring it fully to life and, for that, we were the wrong audience.

Flashing radiantly spurious smiles, the slim, seemingly boneless Tyrone Huggins is excellent as the intellectual drop-out Sanda, security guard and king of the area boys. Through his self-deceived and ambiguous position (would-be Robin Hood and crook), Soyinka shows how counter-societies can become mirror images of the regimes they are supposed to be countering. No one in the play could, you feel, mount politically effective opposition. Its optimism stems from the warm, undeluded way it demonstrates the people's capacity to endure.

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