Friday, 28 March 2008

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui (Lyric Hammersmith) Feb 2008

The set design gets your attention, so do the crates and chairs. They make you wonder if you are about to be taken on a journey that involves a sandy beach.

Well, dream on, for The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, is a story of terror and oppression. It chronicles the rise of Arturo Ui, a notorious gangster, who only understands the way and language of the gun. Manipulative and full of deceit, his gang is described as ‘bloody,’ not to mention, the discord that exists between them.

Set within the context of modern Africa, this new instalment of Brecht’s satire has taken it upon itself to remind us that totalitarianism and tyranny are very much alive in our world today.

Brecht's original, written in 1941, transposed Hitler's rise to power to gangland Chicago, and this African version retains references to Chicago and Cicero. Thus, our Arturo is a son of the desert rather than a son of the Windy City.

Ui is on a mission to prove to us that power corrupts, but his grip on power will leave a long-lasting scar on his own people. He feels that he's highly misunderstood but he is adept at worming his way to our hearts.

Lucian Msamati is brilliant as Ui, his ability to be animated in this role is to be applauded, as he gives us a man who is at war not only with the outside world but within himself.

There were moments of laughter to ease the tension built up by the different actions of this play; where everyman is a law to himself, especially Arturo Ui.

While I am far from being impressed with the decision to announce each scene before it starts; I commend Ti Green for the conceptualised stage. In addition, the ingenious use of crates as chairs and the coffin that serves as a doorway when one is required; injects some zest to the production. The political speech delivered by Ui at the end is well placed, because it reminds me of the familiar rhetoric of dictators.

Though, Bertolt Brecht did not live to see the first production of his play, but even, he would agree that this story deserves to be told from an African viewpoint. Moreover, this is a metaphor for the different conflicts and struggles going on in the four corners of the world.

Image: Simon Kane

De Botty Business (March 2008 Hackney Empire)

Cancer is no light-hearted matter. And when it is prostate cancer, it becomes a subject many of our men would rather not talk about. Not the poet and writer, Benjamin Zephaniah.

If like me, then you are keen on facts and learning new things, this is the production to watch out for. You will find out what Digital Rectal Examination (DRE) stands for, as well as the fact that Black men are three times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than white men.

Commissioned by the UK's Prostate Cancer Society, De Botty Business is an upbeat and humorous examination of the misconceptions, myths, fears and taboos connected to prostate cancer in the Black community.

The comedy is set in a West Midlands barber shop, owned by Jamaican couple Mr and Mrs Maxwell and run by their Rastafarian son Marky. Up until the day we join him, Marky's greatest problem in life is that he would rather be running the world's first Rasta airline - with flights daily between Jamaica and Ethiopia - than cutting hair. But on this fateful day, his father returns from some routine blood tests to proclaim that he is dying.

Mr Maxwell is faced with the prospect that he may have prostate cancer and he is adamant no one will put ‘their fingers’ up his backside in order to examine him. His fears skyrocketed when he starts listening to the different medical options facing him. But the cancer seems to be less scary than some of the ill-advised input from his friends.

However, the arrival of Johnson brings a different and balanced perspective for them all. Maxwell’s reversed the decision not to see a doctor.

The unadulterated Jamaican Patois on stage adds an edge to this production which makes it enjoyable and thrilling to watch. You can’t help but laugh at the individual idiosyncrasies of these different characters.

The ensemble is indeed a bunch of interesting and quirky people; from Ivan, who believes, “Root medicine is the real medicine and nature knows best,” to Charlene, the local ‘chatterbox.’

If Charlene gets hold of your business, be prepared, everyone you know is going to find out. And who can forget Barns, the most ‘financially astute’ character I have ever experienced on stage. The burst of laughter from the audience as these characters reveal themselves is a testament to the play's ability to entertain and educate. You just have to experience it yourself.

This is a well thought-out production by the Prostate Cancer Society. It's time we stopped using tradition as an excuse not to live and lead a healthy lifestyle, and start using common sense.

This is no Jamaican farce of a play, these are real life issues presented with a touch of compassion and ‘wicked’ humour. De Botty Business is insightful, brilliant and as witty as the play's title. Riveting and without a doubt, absolutely entertaining.

Image: The Prostate Cancer Charity

Written by Benjamin Zephaniah
Directed by Karen Tomlin

Cast: Cedric Duncan, Joan Hooley, David Monteith, Irina Aggrey, Terence Anderson, Cleveland D Herbert, Sabina Cameron and Jonny Leigh-Wright.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Afrika! Afrika! (O2 January 2008)

When you first walk into the tented at London's 02 Centre, you are embraced by the warmth and magnificent setting. It is certainly different to the good old London Particular - the fog and cold, which has graced your skin since you set out on your journey.

Inside the tent, there is anticipation in the air as folks wait for this supposedly ‘magical circus adventure from the amazing continent of Africa.’ While I was somewhat sceptical about Afrika! Afrika! based on the media hype that surrounded it.

From the onset, the energy is exhilarating and exuberant. With each act, the energy level of its cast reaches a higher level. It never occurred to me that so much could be done with a basketball until I saw Afrika! Afrika!

Starting with an energetic dance overture and followed by various traditional dance pieces from different parts of the continent; Gumboots and step dancers from South Africa, and dancers from Gabon and Tanzania.

The troupe is amazingly talented and can form human pyramids with their styles. It reminded me of my childhood days back in Nigeria when the Atilogun dancers from the East had me on my toes trying to do what they were doing.

Body Bizarre, as suggested by his stage act is the most befitting name for Huit Huit, a male body contortionist, who comes on stage like a spider and can get his body to fit through a tennis racket. Finally, the ingenuity of the tennis racket’s mission is accomplished on stage. He can even do push up in the position of a spider. There ought to be a "do not try this at home" sign hanging on the stage.

Afrika! Afrika! also has some elements from the West, with the Monocycle and basketball virtuosi from America; they pumped their way through Mase’s "Breathe, Step Shake" - a reflection of how Africa has gladly embraced the Hip-Hop culture over the years.

The synchronisation of the acrobatic pole performers from Tanzania and South Africa will forever lingers in my memory, for their precision and ability to climb on frail poles, yet with such vigour. It was racy and entertaining.

The music is enchanting and the live band, a delight to watch and listen to. The traditional African songs are relaxing at different stage, providing a nice contrast between the high and mid-tempo songs. The African drums bring a powerful rhythm, and without a doubt, an enchanting charm to the mix, it is incomparable to any other dance pieces.

The highlight for the night was from Lunga, a female body contortionist from South Africa. In addition, Ntombifuthi Pamella Mhlongo dazzled the audience with her voice and costume, made from material showcasing the map of Africa and all its countries. Lunga’s performance was a combination of the bizarre and talent, fused together, as she commanded her body movements with such fluidity against the backdrop of Mhlongo’s sultry voice. She left the audience gasping for more.

The finale with the entire troupe of Afrika! Afrika! had the crowd dancing with them. While this is surely a memorable night, I'm forced to question the relevance of the musical overture after the interval break.And then I was hooked! I joined in the dancing and merriment. This is the Africa which western media never show or tell you about. Afrika! Afrika! is truly magical, electrifying, enthralling, colourful and without a doubt, entertaining.

Let There Be Love (Tricycle Theatre - Feb 2008)

I was impressed with this production. Kwame, you got it right.

If you think good old traditional family theatre is dead, think again. Kwame Kwei-Armah has resurrected the good old family story with his new play, which he also directed. Let There Be Love is a tale of culture, family, relationships and an immigrant tale weaved together, and set against the backdrop of Nat King Cole’s song by the same title.

Alfred Morris is a West-Indian pensioner with a difference - he is contentious, foul-mouthed, refers to his daughter as ‘pussy hole’ and has terminal cancer. However, his pride and feelings of indifference towards his daughters will not allow him to ask for help.

Luckily for him, his daughters, Gemma and Janet decide to enlist the help of Maria, a Polish immigrant seeking greener pastures in England and works as a house help.

She is keen to learn all about the English way of life and make a decent living. Soon, Alfred realises that he too can be of help to another and be appreciated because Maria gives him a chance he feels he has never been given by his daughters to be there for them.

Through Maria, we begin to see the vulnerability of Alfred and the compassionate side his children crave for but have no access to. Not only does he supply her with the best way to get her landlord to switch the heating on for much longer by providing her with ‘cheap landlord buster,’ he also practices his love of the English language with her. Calling the moments he kisses his teeth as his way of “an articulation of dissatisfaction.”

Kwei-Armah creates an interesting and dynamic relationship between Maria and Alfred which is what keeps the play going; the wittiness and rapport of both characters. It is clear to the audience that they need each other - Alfred needs Maria to listen to his life stories and Maria needs a home when she starts experiencing challenges with her boyfriend. Nevertheless, Alfred will need more from Maria.

Kwei-Armah brings sensitive topics such as lesbianism from an Afro- Caribbean perspective and euthanasia unto the live stage. He treats both subject matters with an understanding that leaves the audience gasping when Alfred gives Maria a run-through of how he intends to end his life. It was theatre pushing its boundaries.

Joseph Marcell brings an art of mastery to his role as Alfred Morris. Lydia Leonard is astounding as Maria, and she gave one of the best Polish accents I have ever heard on stage. Sharon Duncan-Brewster pulls of her role as Alfred daughter, a cross between a tomboy and the feminine side his father used to know.

I was rather getting tired of plays that were too ambitious and you are left wondering what the last hour or two was about at the end of it. Kwei-Armah has delivered with Let There Be Love; it is an absorbing and refreshing play and certainly entertaining.

Image: Tristram Kenton

White Boy (Soho Theatre) January 2008

Sorted is a Sudanese teenager who has come to England after experiencing the brutal murder of his family. He soon finds himself in a new environment and culture. It is rather challenging for him to comprehend both worlds and deal with his grief at the same time.

Ricky is a white boy who has friends from all over the world, including Victor, a Jamaican, who is Ricky’s football buddy. They are liked and respected by all and as far as they are concerned, they are all ‘breddas.’ Flips, is the school drug dealer and his presence sends shivers down the spine of those around him.

One incident changed everything for these young men and Ricky is forced to confront his white identity in a multicultural Britain.

Written by Tanika Gupta and directed by Juliet Knight, White Boy is a much needed play that takes a look at the gritty realism of teenage culture in Britain today.

The play focuses on knife crime, and, with the government now proposing to introduce metal detectors into some schools, the play certainly makes a strong case against carrying “a blade” for self-defence. But Gupta also explores the themes of identity and teenage violence - it is about who you are as a teenager and your place in society.

However, this identity also moves beyond the issue of personal identity and tackles your identity as it relates to your race. Ricky finds himself caught between Flips and Sorted, and doing his best to stay loyal to both parties. An unflinching moment is when Flips refers to Sorted as a ‘refugee monkey.’

Gupta succeeds in her ability to capture the teenage street language. It is punchy, raw and racy, and adds humour and colour to the dialogue. The set design adds an edge to the play because of the symbolism a school gate adds to the play; their school is where they meet and discover themselves.

I’ll never forget the point of no return when Flips is stabbed and knife crime becomes real on the life stage. It is no longer what happens to others but I, as an audience member, I am now part of it.

This is the first time I'll see a play and witness theatre audience with teary eyes. It is a gripping and moving play because of the playwright's ability to convey the mixed emotions which teenagers experience as they try to define their place in society and among their friends.

The play is energetic and the young cast is a delight and easily likeable. From the confident and flirty Zara (Venetia Campbell) to Shaz (Peyvand Sadeghian), also a loud mouth but knows her limits.

Ciaran Owens is menacing as Flips and Luke Norris is brilliant as Ricky; often bringing light-hearted humour to the play with his ability to speak Jamaican Patois, which is entertaining.

The topicality of the play makes it a riveting production; it is concise and cannot be ignored but taken in and digested by all because it brings the epidemic of ‘knife crime’ closer home.

The production is sometimes spine-chilling, but without a doubt, White Boy is also an arresting production that leaves you questioning your role in the lives of the youth around you.

Image: Chris Ridley

The Magic Flute (The Young Vic) Nov 2007

Opera has never been my idea of a night out. Despite the spectacular elements of enchantment attached to it, I have never been eagerly drawn to it. While I appreciate the talent and energy that emanates from Opera singers whenever I have spared any precious minutes of my time to watch it on television, I have never been intrigued by it. By now you get the idea that it takes a lot to get me to change my mind.

The Magic Flute, Mozart’s most famous operatic piece comes to the Young Vic but with a twist he never envisaged. Adapted and directed by Mark Dornford – May, this production has an ensemble of South African singers and musicians. This production gives you a different image of the post-apartheid South Africa.

So the story goes; Tamino is a young prince from a distant country, rescued from his own nightmares by the attendants of the Queen of the night. He is employed to help rescue Pamina, the Queens daughter, whom she claims has kidnapped by Sarastro. Accompanied by Papageno, the mischievous bird-catcher, who wants love in his life, Tamino gets a magic flute for protection on his journey. Soon they come in contact with Sarastro and find out for themselves, he is not the evil man the Queen of the night claims he is. The young prince soon falls in love with Pamina, who is equally smitten by him. He also decides to become one of Sarastro followers. The stage is set for the trial to decide the fate of the young lovers.

If you are expecting an orchestra, get ready to be surprised. Mandisi Dyantyis, is the conductor, in a T-shirt and combat trousers, he conducts members of cast who are playing marimbas. As if that was not shocking enough, the stage of the Young Vic has been transformed into a different world. With bamboo sticks holding up the stage in a trapeze form, drums hanging above and fire coming from below as the story unfolds.

Mhelekazi Andy Mosiea and Philisa Sibeko are brilliant in their respective roles as Tamino and Pamina. Zamila Gantana is the hilarious Papageno. Pauline Malefane is astounding as Queen of the night, her voice and sheer stage energy, takes your breath away. Colourful and amazing costumes, especially when Pauline Malefene comes on stage dressed in weaves of raffia add zest to the production.

If you are expecting the high octane dance songs and sounds of South Africa, from shows such as Umoja, then this isn’t for you. However, it has its moments with raptous drum sounds. The songs and voices of the singers reverberate throughout the theatre. Despite the odd clumsy dance routines, The Magic Flute will leave you spellbound and nourished, and the ingenious use of bottles to create soaring melodic sounds will leave you wanting more.

Image: Keith Pattison