Pros: This play teaches the audience about Nigerian history and culture while also being entertaining for all age groups.
Cons: The rhythm of the language and the accents take some getting used to.
It’s 1914. The British government has merged the tribes and kingdoms to create modern Nigeria. King George V has sent Charles (Christian Roe) to visit Herbert Ogunde (Tunji Falana) to ask him and his theatre troupe to perform at the unity celebrations. The actors and Charles have very different ideas as to what constitutes an appropriate performance, but manage to come to an agreement in the end.
The story the theatre troupe shares with Charles follows young girl Jenrola (Rita Balogun) on her quest to find the spear of Shango. This mythical spear will give her kingdom wealth and power. Also looking for the spear are Aguzani (Stephanie Levi-John) and Obaze (Rebecca Omogbehin). The three women engage in a battle of wit and strength to see who can get to the spear first. In the original story, there is one victor. Charles stops the play and asks if they can change it because it is not in the spirit of the new country’s union. After much discussion, the play continues with an alternative ending that satisfies everyone.
The story of Charles, Herbert and his actors is framed by a Yoruba creation myth that starts and finishes the production. Odudwa, the apprentice to the sky god, is sent down to the marshy earth with a chicken in order to create the land. The sky god is so happy with his apprentice’s work that he molds all the kingdoms and people of Nigeria from the earth. One of the god’s descendants is Shango, the god of thunder who drops his spear to the earth when being chased. As lovely as this story was, it felt disconnected from the main plotline, even though it provided the background to the spear. It could have been its own piece of theatre, or been cut from the production because it wasn’t necessary in order to understand the main part of the play.
All of the actors except Roe play multiple roles, and they do so incredibly skillfully. Falana also plays an old man and a hunter the women meet while searching for the spear. He employs great physical skill to differentiate these characters and shows the inherent misogyny of 1914 Nigeria through comedy rather than nastiness. The women, two of whom are Herbert’s wives, amusingly show they are in control of the relationship.
The set is simple but colourful and effective. The stage is a painting of a river delta and coast, forming the natural curve of the stage. There are mats and cushions on the front of the stage for young children, which gives them more of an opportunity to engage with the interactive elements of the production. Strips of African print fabric dangle from the flies, creating a forest. Semi-circular structures covered with reeds are walls of huts. Charles perches on a rock for much of the performance, enchanted by the performance in front of him.
This production is highly polished and engages the young members of the audience as well as the older ones. It was a great experience to hear another country’s folk tales performed so captivatingly and broaden my own cultural horizons as well as seeing numerous young people engage with the action unfolding before them.
Written and directed by: Gbolahan Obisesan
Box Office: 020 7645 0560
Booking Link: https://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson/68/more-dates
Booking Until: 9 November 2014