Theatrics as TFTperforms The Lion and The Jewel
To mark Prof Wole Soyinka 80th Birthday, between July and August, The Thespian Family Theatre and Productions is performing two of his plays. The troupe promises a show like no other, writes Paul Ade-Adeleye.
for the more theatre-oriented, the word ‘performance’ would immediately spawn erect ears and faster heart beats. Such was the anticipation when it was announced that to celebrate the 80th birthday of Prof Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s only Nobel Laureate, The Thespian Family Theatre and Productions, an independent theatre troupe, will be performing two of his plays – The Lion and the Jewel, and The Trials of Brother Jero – between July and Saturday, August 30. As all theatre troupes do, the troupe promised to bring the show to you as never before.
Punctual as a clock, the writer was at the venue, Freedom Park, CMS, Lagos, and strolled to the enclosure demarcated for the performance itself. Expecting to find an enclosure fully designed to look like a hall and eliminate all appearances of an open-air theatre, he was taken aback and sent a-pondering to find that the only things covered were the seats for audience and the stage itself. Wondering if this was in fact, a keeping to Soyinka’s depiction of indigenousness prevailing over western tradition, for traditional African theatre was usually an open air affair, he settled to watch the performance.
Predictably, the play did not start at the appointed time, and there might have been many reasons for this. First, the auditorium was still as devoid of spectators as a baboon’s backside is devoid of hair. It could also have been that the producers were stylishly waiting for the audience to fill up. This situation proved that theatre in Nigeria is fast going out of favour because movie premieres at cinemas seem to pull a more punctual and populous audience.
The play itself proved to be an eyeful. The director, Mr Toyin Osinaike apparently knew what he was on about as his artistic pyrotechnics reverberated from one end of the stage to the other, from the opening glee to the curtain call. As is well known among theatre practitioners, the course of a performance is usually determined by the opening moments; Mr Osinaike therefore, lived up to his name by ensuring that the opening glee was fast paced and exhilarating, even so that an itinerant photographer – obviously blown away by the dexterous display of dancing feet and drumming women as depicted in the glee – unwittingly abandoned his job in favour of greedily feasting his eyes on the sequences breezing by in rapid succession on stage. Not that one can blame him though; anyone with a good eye would have done likewise.
Written by Prof Soyinka, The Lion and the Jewel depicts an outlandish school teacher, Lakunle, who is brains deep in love with Sidi, a village girl of Hellenic beauty. He wants to marry her, and would have successfully done so had he not been averse to the idea of paying her bride price. This may be as a result of his less-than-attractive financial situation, or his damning indoctrination in western philosophies, but whichever it is; Sidi will not marry him without a bride price and she even calls him miserly. A photographer has come to the village earlier and, bewitched by her beauty, has taken pictures of her and published them in a magazine. Baroka, the village head and unmitigated adversary of modernity has also seen the pictures, and like the biblical devil, who as a roaring lion, prowls around, seeking whom he may devour; begins to desire her for a wife. In the dark recesses of his mind, he hatches an evil plan; lies to his blabber-mouthed wife that he has lost his potency, and, as expected, she gossips this information with Sidi. Inordinately eager to spite Baroka, who she has erstwhile seen as a living god, she goes to seduce him so she can mock him when he cannot perform basic manly duties, but things go awry as she did not go with a long spoon to dine with the devil. Ultimately, the old rogue has a go at her and that proves to be enough to make Sidi a believer of his. She promptly heads home, bids Lakunle a cold farewell, and packs off to be a new bride in Baroka’s harem.
Under Mr Osinaike’s direction, the first scene took off with a commendable effort to keep up the pace, which the performers had built already from the glee. Mr Patrick Diabuah, the individual who played Lakunle, a character Soyinka most artfully created, must have known he had a lot of work, and he pulled off quite an exciting performance, although a few glitches were to be noted. First, perhaps in his keenness to sustain the pace and obey the basic principles of acting comedies, he began to move and render lines faster than was required. In fact, he seemed to be acting in a dimension operating at a faster frequency than the audience, but being a ready performer, he must have noticed this himself, and, in an impressive display of theatrical flexibility, quickly recovered himself and soon began to draw chuckles from the audience.
Now, whether by the director’s design or by the actor’s fate, he breezed around the stage again at the appearance of the village belle, Sidi, played by the comely Ijeoma Aniebu whose affecting beauty may have driven even a garden slug to feats of Olympian proportions, and, at the sequence where he was to collect her pail and ‘uncannily’ spill some water on himself, he gave himself a quick bath, and subsequently nearly flooded the stage floor. This proved to be a misfortunate occurrence as he was soon clumsily slipping up and down the stage, whereas he was supposed to be breezing around with grace. To pay for this water spill later on were a couple of dancers who either by design or by fate was left sprawling on the floor during a mimicry dance.
Miss Aniebu, who played Sidi, also did justice to the character as she coyly swung her hips about; the effect of course was acted or genuine amorous displays of affection from either Mr Diabuah or Lakunle. One thing though, stood in her way – audibility. Her voice was not the loud type and despite her efforts at vocal projection, the writer still had to pay very keen attention to hear her quite clearly.
While this did not slow down the pace; the director, who had every intention of justifying the amount charged for the performance, proceeded to attack the crowd scene where a chorus of vociferous townspeople were supposed to be singing and miming, and the performance seemed to be all roses and daisies until the entrance of Baroka, played by Mr Sobifaa Dokubo. The thing about this bit of the performance is that it was to say the very least, below relative par with what had erstwhile constituted the performance. The aforementioned actor is one who is said to have worked with the Nigerian Thespis himself, Chief Hubert Ogunde, and his theatrical feats have also kept not a few people enthralled. Alas, whether due to advance in age or by an ill turn of events in his career, his performance was arguably the chink in the armour that was the performance as a whole. The writer began to wonder if the veteran actor was a regular at rehearsals, and if he was, whether the director devoted enough time to personally work on him as every good director should. From his initial utterance to his ultimate action, Mr Dokubo seemed out of place with a character he was meant to be engrossed in. He fumbled for his lines as was noticeable by anyone who had read the play, and at a point simply began to render lines to the detriment of his acting. This was made even more glaring when one of the scenes that should have revealed his theatrical prowess, the armpit-hair-being-plucked scene, was thrown away once more as it lacked the proper comic elements to bring it to life – fast pace, classy acting bordering on melodrama and farce, infusions of slapstick to maintain consistency with the opening sequences, and last but most importantly, interaction with the audience. Mr Dokubo threw all these to the winds, and may have been undone had Sadiku, played by the skilled Mrs Lara Akinsola, not come to save the scene. She apparently knew what she was on about as she threw some life into the scene.
At the close of the second scene, it became apparent that what would prove to be the performance’s Damoclean sword was the scene where Baroka would have to wilily lure Sidi to bed. So far, Mr Dokubo’s acting had not justified the appellation ‘Fox of the Undergrowth’, and Sidi had not yet come up with a trick to boost her projection. If both performers were left alone on stage together, it would require effusive thespian miracles to keep the play alive. The miracle was never to be as the sword soon dropped at the commencement of the said scene, and to prove this point, a quick glance round the audience in the middle of the scene revealed the tell-tale signs of a borderline blasé audience – mass usages of phones, and, even the photographer slowly came to life like a flower in the sun, except he was less graceful about it for he soon conceived it in his camera to impede the writer’s vision and concentration with his beefy frame and noisome clicks.
To give the devil his well-deserved due, Mr Dokubo displayed remarkable presence of mind throughout. Any performer acting like he was on stage would have known he was facing imminent perdition and would have cracked open like a nut in a squirrel’s paws. Alas, he kept his act together, and by bumbling and fumbling pulled it through to the very end without falling apart, or if he did, he did an exceedingly commendable job hiding it from the writer’s searching eyes.
Soon enough, the writer was salvaged from the hell of a graceless photographer and a bumbling actor with the reappearance of Lakunle and Sadiku towards the end of the play as they kicked up the action again, and, Sidi’s significant selection of Baroka, the action conveying the ultimate thematic preoccupation of the play, was well managed by the director whose job had thus far been commendable. He proved a ready manager as the crowd scene was well controlled with significant dances and pantomimes which hit the nail on the head as far as the subject matters of the play were concerned. Alas, he may have been a bit too industrious while depicting Lakunle finding some fun at the end with a young girl. Now, Professor Soyinka wrote it as such, but he never portrayed Lakunle speaking Yoruba at any point in the play and Mr Patrick, while playing Lakunle, at the final scene spoke Yoruba to a young lassie who had caught his eye earlier; a very significant turn of events which tampered with Soyinka’s depiction of western culture through the character of Lakunle.
Finally, the managers of the production seemed to need some schooling on how to choose locations for theatre performances and I would recommend that they read up Stephen Langley’s works before choosing Freedom Park for any play again. Their decision seemed to the writer to have hampered the director’s work as he had to move the orchestra into the audience in a play that was not Brechtian. Not only that, they also sent Miss Ijeoma to the guillotine as she had to talk her throat out in an open-air theatre with heavy winds blowing and a mild rain falling. To the Thespian Family Theatre, in the words of Ola Rotimi, if drama be the food of life, act on.
- Ade-Adeleye is of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State.
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