This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Winter’s Tale or Ìtàn Ògìnìntìn, Renegade Theatre (Nigeria), dir. Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun, 25 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Julie Sanders, University of Nottingham
There are no bears in Nigeria, or at least it would seem so, from the opening moments of the reworking of The Winter’s Tale by the Renegade Theatre Company of Lagos. In the opening sequences it became abundantly clear to members of the very full audience that a number of keynotes of conventional British theatre productions of this play would be joyously set aside and, indeed, turned on their head. The production opened in attention-grabbling fashion, as is traditional in Yoruban theatrical cultures, with dance, drumming and song (including the remarkable voice of Motúnràyò Oròbíyi who played Ìgba or Time throughout as a Chorus, framing, introducing, transitioning, and often directly engaging with the audience in her sung storytelling). A group of mariners moved with oars to symbolise the journey of a Sicilian lord and the cast-off baby daughter of Şàngó (Leontes) to the dangerous Bohemian coast. There was to be no ‘exit pursued by a bear’; this ‘Antigonus’ (for the most part, characters bore significant Yoruban names in this production) was attacked by robbers and a very willing Globe audience was in the process primed for a show that reworked, rethought and intervened in Shakespeare’s play in all kinds of exciting and memorable ways.
Of course, we had also begun the play at a different point to usual. In an enlightening pre-show discussion with the director Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun and four of his company, the team talked of the non-linear approach they had adopted and, tantalisingly, gestured towards a surprise ending. In this version (or ‘African reboot’ as an Associated Press release the next day referred to it) we began with the discovery of the baby Olúǫlá (Perdita) by the Darandaran (Old Shepherd) and his son and then Ìgbà/Time quickly sang us over sixteen years to a festival of hunting (a trope that seemingly sits more readily within Yoruban cultural and theatrical tradition than classical pastoral sheep-shearing) where Olúǫlá (Perdita) and Fǫláwęwó (Florizel) were in full courtship mode. Suffice to say that these performers, Olúwatóyĩn Alli-Hakeem – a well known star of television soap operas and of the wider ‘Nollywood’ tradition in her home city – and Joshua Adémólá Àlàbì, brought a considerable degree of Nigerian ‘sass’ to the dancing between these two young lovers, much to the delight of an increasingly vocal and participatory audience. In this confident restructuring of the play’s events, then, the story of Şàngó’s intense jealous reaction to the affection he witnesses between his wife Ǫya (Hermione) and his oldest friend Ogùn (Polixenes) becomes an inset narrative told by the exiled Sicilian courtier Adéagbo (or Camillo, a crowd-winning comic performance by Ǫlásúnkànmi Adébàyǫ).
What the production also became a story of on the night for me, however, was one about audience participation of a very specific kind. It has become something of a given now in writing about the Globe to pay tribute to its particular capacity for involving spectators in the production of the ‘event’ and, certainly, these actors had much to say on this subject in the pre-show talk, responding to the warmth they had felt in the matinee performance the day previous. But audience participation is also central to Apidán theatre practice where spectators are accorded the status of ‘co-actors’ and frequently asked to fill in the gaps in retellings of traditional scenarios and tales. There was a lovely flowback and knowledge exchange between Renegade’s previous work and this encounter with Shakespeare and the Globe in that respect.
And that flowback was audible on the night I saw this production. As the Yoruba-speaking section of the audience warmed to their task on a pleasantly breezy London evening, the call-and-response rhythm of the production hit its stride. My partner, who worked for a time in Northern Nigeria in the early 1990s, was charmed to hear some all too familiar vocal responses that endorsed, questioned or quite openly dismissed some of the suggestions the actors were readily throwing out to them in their lines, frequently delivered as direct address. And the avian life of London seemed happy to get in on the act as well as one particular blackbird settled himself on the Globe thatch in the first half to join in his own version of call and response as Motúnráyǫ Oròbíyi sang her glorious framing songs.
There is much more to say (and think) about how this production refracts the Shakespearean story of oracles and animated statues through a Yoruban cosmology. The company is much influenced in this aspect of their work by their patron, Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, who was one of the proud guests of honour on Friday night much to the obvious delight of the actors. Şàngó is Leontes reimagined as the god of lightning and justice and in their biggest coup de theatre of the night Ǫya (Hermione) is only temporarily revived from her condition of statue in the final act to be snatched from Şàngó a second time and translated into the goddess of the whirlwind. The highly permeable line between human and deity, king and god, life and spirit-life, in Yoruban culture transported Shakespeare’s ending into a whole new ambiguous realm as a result.
One of the great encounters found in this cosmological reworking of The Winter’s Tale was between Autolycus and the trickster figure of Yoruban culture and art, here brilliantly interpreted by Adékúnlé Smart Adéjùmǫ. Her gender-bending, audience-challenging performance, which built quite readily on the significance of tricks and jokes in the Egungan tradition – which itself reaches back to sixteenth-century court theatre in West Africa – was yet another marker of a night in which this Lagos company truly owned the space and the production. The G2G festival is raising important questions about possession and presence on the Bankside that we are all still, I think, as theatregoers and as academics trying to absorb. The effects of watching Shakespeare in a language not your own in the presence of many who are completely absorbed in the equally compelling experience of hearing Shakespeare delivered in their language on a London stage are visceral at times. Who owns the punchlines? Who is in on the joke? What are the stories about inclusion and exclusion, familiarisation and defamiliarisation, to be told here?
But it would be easy also to over-simplify and over-romanticise the sense of belonging that was being staged. The commissioned translation for this show was in formal Yoruban, not the colloquial hybrid language spoken on the contemporary streets of Lagos; and from the pre-show talk several of the performers had gone through their own struggle with the material and accessibility in this respect.
In the end though as I found myself standing in the yard that night and wanting to have eyes in the back of my head and be able to watch the audience (the audience that I could hear so much!) at the same time as what was unfolding on stage, it was about call-and-response. This was a theatrical ‘event’, an experience that stayed with us as we headed for a bus back along Thameside; it left us full of energy and with a different kind of choreography in our bodies. The director Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun would put that down to what the Globe makes possible in terms of proximity: quite literally, the nearness of actors to performers, but perhaps also what this festival is achieving in terms of enabling encounters, inviting us all to participate; as Ogúntókun put it in words that resonate with me; ‘If you are going to dance with us, you can’t do that from far away.’ The Globe danced, sang, and answered back quite willingly on Friday night.
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Listen below to an interview with the director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
Interested in what other audience members are saying about this performance? Look below to find a selection of the online debate: