But this isn't a rant about Nigeria or Biafra, but a couched paean to Wole Soyinka. Yes, I dissed his grandiloquence only a few weeks ago, and my feelings remain staunch. But he is still Africa's greatest dramatist. I came across some New Statesman archive material, in fact, a theatre review of The Trials of Brother Jero, when it debuted at the Hampstead Theatre in 1966. The review opened my eyes to what now seems like a distant past in Nigerian cultural and political life.
To give you an idea of how highly regarded Soyinka's work was, in the review he is compared to Ingmar Bergman (see Magic Flute, and Fanny and Alexander) and Frederico Fellini (see La Dolce Vita, and La Strada), two of the most prominent auteurs of the 20th century. This is no faint praise. The critic then talks about Soyinka's influence on his teacher, Professor Wilson Knight, a well-known critic and academic, and even suggesting that playwright, David Rudkin could learn a thing or two. Soyinka went to on share the inaugural prestigious John Whiting Award with Tom Stoppard that year.
Reading the review makes me want to read the Jero Plays again, glean all its hidden meanings, and draw parallels with modern Nigeria. A character in the play is referred to as an “MP”, which no longer exists, as Nigeria has since switched from the Westminster system of government inherited from the British, to the presidential one it now has. But also, when the play was written in 1964, Nigeria still had a democracy, before General Aguiyi-Ironsi dragged the country into an irreversibly long and deep mire.
DAN Jones mentions ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘Smith-Wilson collaboration’ in one breath. At the time, the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, was in talks with Zimbabwe’s premier, Ian Smith, to end white minority rule (which didn't happen until 1979). Compare that cosiness with today’s relationship between Blair and Mugabe, which is more or less a war, only missing the bits where bombs and missiles get dropped. One of my favourite phrases is ‘neo-colonialism’, because it aptly describes the state of post-independence developing countries. A friend at university refrained from using terms such as Global South, Third World, or even Developing World, and insisted on calling them ‘Neo-Colonial States’. Debt relief might be one of those things which will hopefully reduce neo-colonialism.
On the cultural front, I’m curious about the actors. It turns out that Robert Serumaga was one of the most prominent pioneers of post-colonial African theatre, an actor and playwright who founded the National Theater Company in Uganda. Jumoke Debayo. Who is Jumoke Debayo? The only online reference I could find was of someone with the same name, and a similar artistic background, opening an exhibition in Brisbane. The last entry on IMDB was in 1984, on British television. And of course there’s Athol Fugard, who’s being rediscovered with the recent Oscar winning adaptation of his novel Tsotsi. Where are these people? These are the holders of the African cultural crucible, yet we don’t know enough about them.
This segues perfectly into the new international Ijinle companies of African theatre, Tiata Fahodzi. Yesterday I got a letter from Tiata Fahodzi, publicising the forthcoming run of Oladipo Agboluaje’s The Estate at the Soho Theatre. I saw The Gods Are Not To Blame last year, and it reminded me of the rich oral tradition in Africa, and how well that tradition lends itself to theatre. It’s once again directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, who was also direct The Gods, so I’ll be watching it next week before the World Cup starts. To get tickets for £8, call the number on the website, and quote “Tiata Offer”.
The review is taken from the New Statesman, 8 July, 1966. Reproduced with the kind permission of the New Statesman.
D. A. N. Jones
We were hoping to see a double-bill by Wole Soyinka among the African plays at the Hampstead Theatre Club. It's a pity the Ijinle Company had to cancel The Strong Breed. This sombre and difficult play concerns the ritual persecution of a scapegoat, like several recent English productions; but Soyinka lives in a society where it's genuinely possible for an ordinary man – a suburban schoolmaster, say – to visit an aunt in the country and suddenly feel himself in the wrong century, among impressive even admirable people doggedly practising a cruel rite. Soyinka's treatment of the situation would be a lesson for our Rudkin blood-kin: the fantasy grows from life.
In the event we have only his short rogue comedy, The Trials of Brother Jero, which may seem a bit trivial to those who recently admired The Road, his more complex study of another sub-Christian prophet. Soyinka has something of an obsession about these people: there's not only 'Professor' in The Road but the haunting Lazarus in his novel, The Interpreters. I would guess that, as with Bergman and Fellini, this interest is connected with an artist's doubts: how much of his work is genuine magic, how much a mountebank's tricks? Brother Jeroboam is Soyinka's most straightforward creation in this line. An admitted charlatan, a Jonsonian 'alchemist', he winks at the audience as he gulls his victims. By making ambiguous promises and thwarting natural desires, he exercises total control: the political analogy is implicit.
In The Golden Labyrinth Professor Wilson Knight acknowledges that his essay on Shakespeare is influenced by his pupil, Wole Soyinka. Possibly the link here is Knight's insistence on the curious authority possessed by rogues and even by seedy solitaries like Shylock and Malvolio. For Brother Jero, that simple crook, has got a kind of 'charisma': his graft breeds exhilaration and his ecstatic flock seem almost justified in the infectious piety of their holy rolling. See him at the play's close, canonised in the eyes of his latest conquest, an ambitious MP who's been wondering Lagos beach rehearsing the oration he's too shy to make. There's an addition here to the printed text: that hopeless speech, hilariously rendered by Robert Serumaga, now deals with neo-colonialism and Smith-Wilson collaboration – a parody designed to cause African politicians maximum offence. This lengthens the brisk play; its pace could be improved by following Soyinka's lighting directions and by bridging gaps with music, as was done so well in the recent Third Programme version of Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel. The quarrel between the nagging wife and the fish-seller has also been extended, but Jumoke Debayo makes it worthwhile. She's a gorgeous shrew: every gulp and gasp, every slump into what Soyinka calls the woman's 'Kill me!' posture, expresses her incredulity at the possibility of opposition. She's well matched by Euba, her luckless mate – plunging into pidgin under marital or religious stress – but some of the South Africans in Athol Fugard's company must be finding Nigerian style difficult. Cosmo Pieterse has a white-commonwealth accent, almost comparable with Smith's; it works better in the concluding jazz and poetry session.
This deserves a visit in its own right. The verses – English, Afrikaans, Zulu – come from southern Africa, as do most of the musicians, Chris McGregor's Blue Notes. The jazz is exceedingly 'free': the alto, Dudu Pukwana, is an admirer of Ornette Coleman. But there's also much African stuff here – Cape-Malay rhythms, I'm told – and the show does (to use a ruined word) swing. There's something agreeably weird in Pukwana's switch from highbrow American-style flourishes to verbal Zulu interchanges with the poet, Raymond Kunene.