Writer in exile, revolutionary in waiting

INTERVIEW He held up a radio station to warn the Nigerian premier to 'get out of town'. He launched a council to overthrow the current Nigerian Government. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winning author, believes in action as well as words. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
Next month, the West Yorkshire Playhouse will stage the world premiere of The Beatification of Area Boy, the latest play by the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author, Wole Soyinka. From several points of view, Leeds is a fitting location for this event. Between 1954 and 1957, Soyinka studied for a degree in English there (under such academic megastars as G Wilson Knight) and the university, which made him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1973, is sponsoring the production.

In one crucial respect, though, Leeds is a less than ideal launching pad for this new work. The piece is subtitled "A Lagosian Kaleidoscope" and it holds its version of a mirror up to the scabrous realities of the post-oil-boom capital in the shape of the tinted-glass frontage of the opulent shopping plaza before which the events unfold. It's a play written expressly "to expose [this] society to itself". The urgent need for doing so is ironically underlined by the fact that any staging in Nigeria of such a work is at present quite out of the question and that Jude Kelly, when she went over to Lagos to audition actors for her Playhouse production, had to be careful never to mention Soyinka by name over the telephone.

Acting as a thorn in the flesh of Africa's military dictators and sundry other power-abusers has been a lifetime's occupation for this writer. (A Play of Giants, produced in 1984, rounded up no fewer than four despots - Amin, Bokassa, Nguema and Mobutu - and treated them to a strenuous satirical pasting.) Soyinka has also declined to make himself popular with the current Nigerian incumbent, Sani Abacha, the general who seized power in 1993 in the wake of annulled elections that were supposed to mark a return to civilian rule.

In September 1994, as Soyinka was about to board an aircraft to Germany (where he was slated to speak at a conference about the problems of bringing democracy to Africa), his passport was confiscated by the police. Abacha is the kind of dictator who sees no irony in taking out a full- page ad in Time magazine to congratulate South Africa on pipping Nigeria to the post democracy-wise, while at the same time metaphorically breaking the legs of compatriots who would like to run in such a race and striving to reduce his country's first Nobel Laureate to the status of a non-person.

Since November 1994, when he deposited his wife and children in a "safe place" and smuggled himself out of Nigeria, Soyinka has led the nomadic life of the exile. That's a status he has experienced in both its voluntary and involuntary varieties and he draws an interesting distinction. The forced exile he is presently undergoing is far preferable, he reveals, to the banishment he imposed on himself shortly after his release in 1969 from two years of political imprisonment. Then he felt like an alien in a society whose hollow post-civil war euphoria and venal spiritlessness disgusted him. Now, armed with his patriotic mission (he and a group of like-minded people have launched a council dedicated to overthrowing the current government), he feels that he carries Nigeria around with him and that his sense of kinship with its people has been reaffirmed.

We met in Paris on a spectacularly lovely day, but for reasons it would be tedious to rehearse, the interview did not take the form of a meditative stroll through the sun-drenched splendour of the Jardin des Tuileries. Instead, the two of us were incarcerated in a windowless, soporifically stuffy radio station, a setting which is admittedly not without its Soyinkan resonances. In 1965, he did, after all, famously hold up a western Nigerian radio station at gunpoint and force its employees to replace a Prime Ministerial political broadcast with a seditious tape of his own which warned the premier to "get out of town".

Just turned 61, Soyinka, with his distinguished-looking shock of white hair and the lithe physique of a much younger man, still gives off an air of laidback, discreetly assured sexuality to which photographs do not do justice. He's a man who's admitted to having enjoyed "a very healthy - maybe even an over-healthy - relationship with women" and you can see why his health has always remained rude. The sonorous speaking voice takes on an incantatory intensity when itemising Abacha's varied atrocities: secret trials and executions; hostage-taking; the closing-down of all the country's newspapers; torture on an unprecedented scale; the detention in humiliating conditions of Moshood Abiola, the President-elect of 1993, whose doctor was arrested and jailed when he denounced the inadequacy of the medical treatment permitted to his patient.

We talked about the new play which - rarely for a new stage work - will be broadcast on radio during its run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a Radio 3 recording using the stage cast. The initiative for this prototype-creating exercise came from Alby James, whose production of Death and the King's Horseman - Soyinka's 1975 masterpiece, in which British colonial ignorance interrupts a Yoruban ritual suicide and, by so doing, precipitates tragedy - goes out tomorrow, also on Radio 3.

There's another aborted traditional ceremony near the end of The Beatification of Area Boy, when a wedding that was to unite two powerful and ambitious Lagos families is brought to an abrupt halt by the bride, who diverts her affections to the eponymous hero, Sanda, an intellectual drop-out. Though he'd like to think that he's Robin Hood, this appealing rascal is a key player in a racketeering game which is routine here. From its street-level perspective amid the stalls outside the shopping plaza, the play depicts, in all its blackly comic outrageousness, a society where parking a car, say, involves paying out protection money (and even then not feeling safe).

For the sake of the forthcoming nuptials, the army move in to clear the area, an activity complicated by one of its earlier achievements. The play, which takes you through a day in the life of the district, begins with a spectacularly bright dawn, interpreted in various ways by the traders and local folk. It's only later that the unlovely cause of this unnatural radiance is clarified, with the appearance on stage of some of the million refugees from Maroko, a settlement which has just been fired off the face of the earth by the military.

"My plans were to produce the play in Nigeria towards the end of last year but by then the police were stamping on anything which had the slightest connection with Wole Soyinka's writings. They prevented Nigerian journalists from having me as a guest speaker. They surrounded the building where a book about Wole Soyinka was about to be launched. They cleared away the invited guests and shut the place down." These allusions to himself by name, as if he were both himself and an external witness to his own phenomenon, remind one that in Ibadan, his recent memoir of the years 1946 to 1965, he employed a double distancing device, not only depicting his actions as those of an alter-ego named Maren, but also presenting Maren as a man temperamentally disposed to adopt an alternative identity.

As Soyinka wryly acknowledges, The Beatification is not the most portable of works: "It's very elaborate and very different from my Guerrilla Theatre [founded in the Seventies] with its short sketches that you could perform on the run, then pack up and disappear." Hence the premiere in Leeds. Given Soyinka's forced exile, his high-profile activism and the sordid political situation in Nigeria (where 44 people were executed in public during the short period Jude Kelly was out there auditioning), English audiences may be surprised by the new play's refusal to get bogged down in bitterness. There's a scorching indignation, certainly, but in its alertness to the untidy way life lunges between tragedy and comedy and its evident affection for a people whose faults and failings it knows all too well, The Beatification reminds you, at times, of Sean O'Casey and, at others, of Brecht in exile. There's an optimism in the piece and this sits oddly with the fact that, although the cast is large and heterogeneous, there's a marked absence of anyone who could, you feel, mount effective opposition to the military regime.

Sanda, the racketeering intellectual drop-out, represents, for Soyinka, a phony, self-deceived, if understandable form of resistance. "He's the kind of confused youth who refuses to be sucked into a corrupt system and so establishes a counter-society, but these counter-societies sometimes develop sinister tendencies that mirror the society they are supposed to be countering."

By the end, the love of a good woman is (a little improbably) drawing Sanda back to the straight-and-narrow and a life of somewhat more principled subversion. A capacity for reformation is something with which Soyinka has always credited his audiences, too. The Preface to Opera Wonyosi, his Nigerian make-over of The Threepenny Opera, declared ringingly: "Art should expose, reflect, indeed magnify the decadent, rotted underbelly of a society that has jettisoned all sense of values."

That was in 1977. How, I wondered, given the almost cyclical recurrence of Nigeria's problems, could Soyinka retain a faith in art's reforming power... With an amused smile, the Nobel laureate finishes my sentence for me: "...when all the available evidence is to the contrary? I don't know. I think it's a stubborn streak in me - a form of perversion." Likewise when I ask whether the corollary of his hypersensitivity to injustice is a preternaturally assured sense that he knows what is right, he laughs: "That could be an abnormality in itself." It's joker's licence, for he takes particular care on principle with epithets like "abnormal", believing that the word "dissident", say, "concedes orthodoxy to the other side" and blurs the fact that, in Nigeria, it's the regime which is the abnormality.

To appreciate the scale of the irregularity that has given the West Yorkshire Playhouse the first shot at The Beatification of Area Boy, you could try imagining Alan Bennett under a government ban, forced to premiere a new play, set in a Leeds back-to-back, in Lagos.

Death and the King's Horseman 7.25pm R3 Sun; The Beatification of Area Boy, West Yorks Playhse (0113 244 2111) from Oct 26