September 29, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Iyalode of Eti (Utopia Theatre) @ Sheffield Theatres Studio

Utopia Theatre has been producing works rooted in the experience of the West African diaspora for a few years now, promoting the work of BAME actors and resituating classic texts in a Yoruban context. Perhaps predictably, the company’s first foray into early modern drama was the perennial Romeo and Juliet, adapted in Nigeria as This is Our Chance. For its new production, however, the company attempted something much rarer by adapting a non-Shakespearean Jacobean text – Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi – as an African myth. That it worked so well gives the lie to any assertions of Shakespeare’s exceptional universality.

Iyolade of Eti was an intelligent, inventive and surprisingly faithful take on Malfi. The central issue remained the cultural stigma surrounding a widow’s remarriage, with the brothers Oloye (Patrice Naiambana, the Ferdinand figure) and Oluawo (Tunde Euba, the Cardinal) outright commanding Kehinde Bankole’s Iyalode not to take another husband. Where productions of Malfi often try to root this either in Ferdinand’s incestuous love for his sister or in the two men’s social fears, here the command was all; this was a struggle for power, with Iyalode fighting for her right to self-determination and to love whomever she chooses.

Iyalode’s story was given mythic status by a framing device that ritualised her experience, beginning with a long mourning procession leading Iyalode to her house of mourning and closing with the play’s ghosts gathering on the edge of the stage as ancestors demanding that their descendants do better. Golda John as Osunkemi (the Cariola character) took a choric role, stepping outside the world of the play to narrate the play while offering in-world warnings to Iyalode about the trust she placed in men. Debo Oluwatuminu’s adaptation placed a great deal of faith in the play’s women, rendering them wise and fundamentally good-willed; even Ayo-Dele Edwards’s Labake (Julia), revelling in her affair with Oluawo, was committed to disrupting his plans, and her death after kissing a poisoned gourd was one of the production’s more poignant moments.

Bankole was outstanding as Iyalode. Dignified yet playful, she particularly enjoyed teasing Patrick Diabuah’s Oguntade (Antonio), who prostrated himself before her while she wooed him and only slowly cottoned on to what she was offering him. Her commanding presence offered formidable resistance to the plans of her brothers, and it was only through ignoring her rather than cowing her that they achieved their ends. When imprisoned she was tested more severely. The severed hand was presented to her as her brother’s own before she realised she was holding something dead, causing her to shriek and throw it away; her entertainment of the spirits thereafter saw her more unsettled, laughing a little too hysterically.

The two brothers offered very different forms of oppression: Oloye was emotional, alternating between shouting at and pleading with her, and his immature abruptness and flashes of temper made him an amusing but unpredictable danger. Oluawo was more intimidating. Diminutive and robed, he sat in a chair made of skulls and bones and, it was gradually revealed, wielded real magic, enough to psychically puppeteer Tunji Falana’s Esubiyi (Bosola) into stabbing himself. The magic of this world – including spirits in place of madmen to torture the imprisoned Iyalode, and her own lingering presence as Echo – added to the mythic nature of the tale, suggesting a cycle of violence against women that was being revisited and revenged through the ghosts of previous victims.

Yet while the spiritual and ritual elements suggested a profound quality to the world of the play, there was also a great deal of humour. In this context, Oloye’s descent into animalism resulted in him performing as a donkey rather than a werewolf, bucking and hee-hawing just as a smug doctor congratulated himself on managing to calm his lord down. Naiambana pushed Oloye’s rage to ridiculous lengths as he imagined the extreme punishments to which he would subject Iyolade’s husband, and his spaced-out quality at the play’s end stripped dignity from both his own death and that of his brother, but his poised, energetic physicality and sheer size meant that laughter quickly turned to genuine threat.

The production achieved a great deal with a small amount. A simple set of carved posts lit from different angles created a range of formal and informal spaces, and the place where they met served as confined quarters for the prison. There was a constant underscore of drumming and singing that varied to evoke the different ritual environments of the play and the appeals to higher forces, whether Oguntade asking a witch doctor to cast bones for his son or the annual ritual that Iyalode and Oguntade were barred from participating in. Against these ritual backgrounds, Esubiyi was a pleasingly earthy presence; the lights rose on the audience for his frequent soliloquies, and his casting by his betters as an unsophisticated yokel licenced his gleeful – and later, sorrowful – direct relationship with the audience. Falana was entirely compelling; he compensated for his short stature by staring down his betters, refusing to be cowed by either of Iyolade’s brothers, and holding calm in the face of knives and threats. While he played a fairly straightforward villain at first, the production managed the complexity of his transition to guilt by having him cut Iyolade’s throat and then holding her while she bled out over several minutes; the sustained close contact between the two gave him time to make the emotional transition as he interpreted her final gurgling remarks.

Iyloade of Eti made a powerful case for the transferability of Webster’s key concerns to a West African milieu, while showcasing an extraordinary range of talent and invention. The play worked as an ensemble piece, and the final grouping of the slaughtered cast, offering a mournful prayer while shaking reeds, suggested a timeless quality to the company’s storytelling. A powerful, funny and inventive production.

Posted in Theatre review