A Fortnightly Review
Thursday 7th June – Saturday 21st July 2018
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
BAREFOOT ON A FLOOR of cocoanut matting spread across the square stage of the Arcola theatre in Dalston, hemmed in on all sides by an excited audience, the voluptuous wives of Baba Segi dance exuberantly with their sons and daughters. In this new stage adaption by Rotimi Babatunde of Lola Shoneyin’s prize-winning novel, drums, mbiras and gourd shekeres are as much part of the action as the drama that unfolds. A modern-day Nigeria of hospitals and fertility tests by white-coated staff gets woven, or collaged, uneasily into a more traditional world of holy teachers, witchcraft and magic potions. These days, those who are accustomed to cosmopolitan cities may stir apprehensively if we cite the characteristics of any race or society. Isn’t this just a step away from racism? But while it seems perfectly feasible for a white English cast to perform Three Sisters, frankly, it is impossible to imagine a similar cast of uptight, pasty-faced Londoners giving anything but a surreally inappropriate performance of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
Bursting into song, grinding their ample bums in suggestive dances, the wives dance backwards into Baba’s belly. The play is like a comb, dripping with the honey of Nigeria, offering us a characteristic love of proverbs and turns of phrase – whether these be tribal in origin – If not that women needed men’s seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain – or leftovers, sometimes inverted, from colonial times – as in skelter-helter or from pillar to post – or simply originating in personal perception, as when Iya Segi’s mother observes, God gave men bollocks for the weight they lacked in brains.
Sex is brought out into the open in conversation with an ease any respectably modest person brought up in Stoke Newington might envy, though sleaze and exploitation are as familiar to the participants in this drama as penises are, while Baba Segi evinces a deep distrust of the tests demanded by modern medicine, and in this way, the play seems to epitomise the society out of which it has sprung.
The ensemble is superb (and very much a team rather than a cast), all equally adept at singing, dancing and acting. Patrice Naiambana, as an overfed Baba Segi, is a flatulent patriarch, lumbering about the stage as its rightful owner, but Naiambana can switch into a Mercedes-driving Oxbridge-educated rapist, smooth-talking a girl into the passenger seat when the switch in character is called for. His first wife, Iya Segi, is an equally massive matriarch, as capable as any male of corruption and a mischief that ultimately leads to tragedy. The play keeps its audience rocking with laughter as much as to its musical rhythms. And the only criticism expressed by the friend who came with me to see the piece was of this first-night audience, who were sometimes too willing to laugh, when what was being laid before our eyes was a painful reality, the waspish joke summing up the scene more thought-provoking in its irony than eager for a chortling response.
Patrice Naiambana as Baba Segi, with Jumoké Fashola (who also hosts BBC Radio London’s Sunday Breakfast Show), Christina Oshunniyi (Ife, Queen Elizabeth Hall), layo-Christina Akinlude (The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe) and Marcy Dolapo Oni (Iya-Ile, Soho Theatre). Also: Ayo-Dele Edwards (The Lion and the Jewel, Royal Court Theatre), Tania Nwachukwu (The Dissidents, Tricycle Theatre), Diana Yekinni (The Crucible, UK tour), Ayan De First (Makinde, Ovalhouse), and Usifu Jalloh (Sweetpeter, UK tour).
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).
Note: This review was edited immediately after publication to correct an error in spelling Mr Naiambana’s name.