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 has done something much rarer, adapting a non-Shakespearean Jacobean text – Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi – as an African myth. That it works so well gives the lie to any assertions that Shakespeare is unique in its elements of universality.
Iyolade of Eti is an intelligent, inventive and surprisingly faithful take on Malfi. The central issue is 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 is enough; this is a struggle for power, with Iyalode fighting for her right to self-determination and to love whomever she chooses.
Iyalode’s story is given mythic status by a framing device that ritualises 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) takes 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 puts in men. Debo Oluwatuminu’s adaptation places 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, is committed to disrupting his plans.
Bankole is outstanding as Iyalode. Dignified yet playful, she particularly enjoys teasing Patrick Diabuah’s Oguntade (Antonio), who prostrates himself before her while she woos him and only slowly cottons on to what she is offering him. Her commanding presence offers formidable resistance to the plans of her brothers, and it is only through ignoring her rather than cowing her that they achieve their ends. The two brothers offer very different forms of oppression: Oloye is emotional, alternating between shouting at and pleading with her, and his immature abruptness and flashes of temper make him an amusing but unpredictable danger. Oluawo is more intimidating. Diminutive and robed, he sits in a chair made of skulls and bones and, it is gradually revealed, wields real magic, enough to psychically influence 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 – adds to the mythic nature of the tale, suggesting a cycle of violence against women that is being revisited and revenged through the ghosts of previous victims.
Yet while the spiritual and ritual elements suggest a profound quality to the world of the play, there is also a great deal of humour. In this context, Oloye’s descent into animalism results in him performing as a donkey rather than a werewolf, bucking and hee-hawing just as a smug doctor feels he has managed to calm his lord down. Naiambana pushes Oloye’s rage to ridiculous limits as he imagines the extreme punishments to which he will subject Iyolade’s husband, and his spaced-out quality at the play’s end strips dignity from both his own death and that of his brother, but his poised, energetic physicality and sheer size mean that laughter quickly turns to genuine threat.
The production achieves a great deal with a small amount. A simple set of carved posts lit from different angles creates a range of formal and informal spaces, and the place where they meet serves as confined quarters for the prison. There is a constant underscore of drumming and singing that varies 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 are barred from participating in. Against these ritual backgrounds, Esubiyi is a pleasingly earthy presence; the lights rise on the audience for his frequent soliloquies, and his casting by his betters as an unsophisticated yokel licences his gleeful – and later, sorrowful – direct relationship with the audience.
Iyalode of Eti makes 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 works as an ensemble piece, and the final grouping of the slaughtered cast, offering a mournful prayer while shaking reeds, suggests a timeless quality to the company’s storytelling. A powerful, funny and inventive production.