Utopia Theatre, founded in 2001, is reputed for creating and re-imagining classics that are contemporary and relevant to today’s audiences. They are keen to link African stories and its dispersion to their productions. The world premiere of Debo Oluwatuminu’s Iyalode of Eti is no exception. This is a reimagining of John Webster’s The Duchess Of Malfi.
The 17th Century tragedy is set to a pre-colonial West African tale and is enriched in its rituals, culture, traditions, customs and mysteries. It is a love story about a recently widowed Iyalode of Eti (Kehinde Bankole) who yearns to marry Oguntade (Patrick Diabuah), her lover, but her brothers forbid her remarrying. Iyalode is determined not to be denied love, womanhood and motherhood and marries Oguntade secretly. When their marriage is discovered their love and lives are threatened and is sadly met with tragic consequences which are initiated by her controlling and manipulative brothers, Oluawo (Tunde Euba) and Oloye Olrorogun (Patrice Naiambana).
Iyalode must be considered a hero whose empowerment being a woman and following her heart does not crush her spirit especially how women are negatively viewed in her community and the consequences of their assertion. The tragedy’s other main themes are corruption, abuse of power, revenge, social inequality, class, tribe and cruelty.
In similar vein to The Duchess Of Malfi, the language is rich, poetic and metaphorical and the characters could not be any more complex and are interlinked with music (played by two actors doubling up as musicians), chanting and dancing. Emma Williams’ staging is traditional and intimate and gives the audience a closer look into the story that is enriched with ancestors and spirits. Chris Speight’s lighting is symbolic and blends well with the story’s emotions. Rob Hart’s haunting and hypnotic soundscapes creates the ambience and anticipation of the tragic plot. The cast wears Adesola Obede’s colourful and traditional costumes and its necklaces beads signify tribal identity.
Two performers stand out must be Kehinde Bankole and Patrice Naiambana’s portrayals of Iyalode and Oloye Olorogun respectively. Bankole’s shares movingly and emotively Iyalode’s unhappiness of being denied because of “royalty” and “being a woman” and expresses distraught of her eventual torture and confinement. Naiambana’s excellent acting as Oloye Olorogun, the scheming and manipulative brother; he doesn’t hesitate to hold back his disapproval and anger when discovering Iyalode’s secret and accuses her being a “demon in human flesh” and a “witchbird”. He disturbingly and convincingly performs as a troubled character that is infested with spirits later on in the play. Tunji Falana’s does a crowd pleasing role as the faithful turned betrayer Esubiyi. It is entertaining to see how he twists the orders which comes to collective destruction at the realm and concludes how one’s “debt is paid” and that “death unites”.
Other members of the cast are excellent and they relive the tragedies involving all its characters including the perpetrators. In similar tradition to many famous plays, there is a summative conclusion; the story at the end refers to the “cycle of life” where reliance of ancestors, future generations and morals can ensure that the land(s) can once return to be peaceful and prosperous.
Moji Kareem successful direction of Iyalode of Eti is certainly a tragedy re-imagined on stage and its pulsating African sounds and rhythms reach many beyond West Africa!
Reviewer: Dawn Smallwood
Reviewed: 23rd September 2016
North West End Rating: ★★★★