Thursday, 7 February 2013

vanity project 7: feast

I haven't done one of these for a while, but I overwrote my piece about Feast considerably – of course I did, it's a play written by five people, all of whom had smart and interesting things to say, plus it's directed by Rufus Norris, who is so many kinds of brilliant I lost count years ago – so here's the original version. I really enjoyed the show, although I saw it two nights before press night, at which point the multiple feasts of the second half still felt disjointed and confusing, but the first-half sweep across history was absorbing, particularly the scenes set in Brazil (is freedom a gift or a penance for an aged slave?) and Cuba (what can a communist prostitute understand about a capitalist financial crisis?), the singing and dance was gorgeous, and that small crush I've been harbouring on Kobna Holdbrook-Smith became a pretty big crush by the end. Plus it's got a live chicken on stage, and a Nigerian email scam, which you could barely hear for the collective shout of laughter – and what better feeling can you get in the theatre than that?


 In a warehouse in west London there's a party going on. Sola Akingbola, the drummer from Jamiroquai, is playing a bright, joyful shuffle on a shekere – a large maraca strung with beads. Amid a buzz of chatter in Spanish and English, Cuban dancer Yanet Fuentes shivers her hips to the rhythm. Damon Albarn of Blur, who has a studio nearby, pops in to say hello, and is irresistibly drawn to the musicians' corner, where he starts improvising on a thumb piano. Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith whoops as he masters a jittery Latin dance sequence. And at the heart of the hubbub sits theatre director Rufus Norris – the man responsible for harnessing this vibrant atmosphere and putting it on to the stage of London's Young Vic.

This is a typical morning in the rehearsal room for Feast, a new play tracing the spread of Yoruba culture from its home in Nigeria to Cuba, Brazil, the US and UK. Since he began directing in the late-1990s, Norris has always sought out difficult projects – such as London Road, a jaggedly modern musical dealing with the aftermath of serial killings in Ipswich, and Dr Dee, Damon Albarn's first opera, about a 16th-century alchemist – and Feast is no exception. It has five writers, who live in four continents, and between them cover 300 years of Yoruba experience, taking in slavery, liberation, family and social politics, and the struggle to live up to one's ancestors. But Feast isn't a history lesson, says Norris, and if it's going to feel authentic to the Yoruba belief system, in which everything from a table to a sheet of corrugated plastic is infused with its own spirit, “you can't just have a load of blah-blah on stage”. Which is why he's spending a lot of this morning gently arguing with his Cuban choreographer, George Cespedes, about the need for actors to perform the intricate dance moves, to invigorate the production.

Feast was dreamed up by Elyse Dodgson, who runs the international department at London's Royal Court (who are co-producing the show with the Young Vic). In the mid-2000s, Dodgson happened to be working simultaneously with playwrights in Nigeria and Latin America and was struck by how the orishas, or spirits, of Yoruba belief had travelled across the Atlantic through slavery and fused with Catholicism to form the basis of related religions, Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil. “It's such an amazing story of survival,” says Dodgson. The trouble was, how to tell it. It took two years of workshops, involving as many as 10 playwrights, to reach the form that Feast is in now. Those workshops, says Gbolahan Obisesan, who lives in London but was born to a Yoruba family in Nigeria, were full of robust argument, as he and the other writers struggled to “agree on something that links all of us together”.

Norris insisted from the beginning that he didn't want the show to feel like a string of bitty, unconnected vignettes, and that influenced the decision to make Feast consolidate around four figures in the complex Yoruba cosmology: Yemoja, the mother goddess; Oshun, goddess of love; Oya, the spirit of change; and Eshu, the trickster, who causes chaos wherever he goes. These archetypal characters are reincarnated across the show, taking the form of sisters separated by slave traders, civil rights protesters in 1960s America, and athletes in modern London discussing whether black people should have white partners, personal or professional. Each of the five writers – American Tanya Barfield, Cuban Yunior García Aguilera, Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde, Brazilian Marcos Barbosa, and Obisesan, who moved to the UK when he was nine – is responsible for the segments of story set in their own country.

Clearly this isn't an easy way to work: even trying to interview the five writers proves almost impossible. So why not settle on a single writer and allow him or her to get on with it? Babatunde speaks for all of them when he says: “The dynamics of the story of Nigerian diaspora can only properly be reflected by the changing tones of each section. Having a straight narrative would undermine the richness and diversity of the historical experience.” What makes this more exciting, argues Barfield, is that: “It's rare to have the structure and the theme [of a play] work so much in tandem. The weaving of the stories mirrors the weaving of belief systems, the syncretism of Yoruba culture.” Or, as Barbosa puts it: “Only a multi-authored piece can reveal multiple contrasts and extra layers of meaning that will make complexity the core of the play, not just an adjective for it.”

There's another, practical reason, says Norris: “There are details in the Cuba scene that nobody who wasn't from there would come up with. Similarly, nobody can really write the Nigerian scene unless they have a deep understanding of the women there. Tiny details are the things that give it authenticity.” Those details have to be found in the staging, too – which is why it's so useful to Norris that one of the dancers, Alexander Varona, is a santeria believer: the staging includes a shrine to Babalu Aye (the earth spirit), and Varona has been giving advice on how to interact with it.

The five writers have met only once, when they came together for a workshop in London in spring 2012, but discovered links between them both expected and unforeseen. For instance, Babatunde knew that the orishas had travelled to Latin America with slavery, but hadn't realised how openly they are worshipped in Brazil and Cuba: appreciation of the cosmology is “engrained in the fabric of life” for the Yoruba of Nigeria, he says, but worship tends to happen furtively. García Aguilera confirms that the orishas inform a lot of day-to-day rituals in Cuba – the spilling of the first drop from a bottle of rum to appease them, for instance – yet it was while he was in London that he went to his first santeria ceremony.

Obisesan says that one of the key beliefs his Yoruba parents instilled in him was that: “when you step out of the household, you're not just a representation of yourself as a human being in the world, you represent the whole family, the house you were brought up in. You represent your ancestors.” And this is something that Tanya Barfield, raised in Oregon, recognises from her own upbringing. “Many black Americans have no knowledge of our ancestors whatsoever, yet the belief system of ancestral heritage is fundamental to the black community,” she argues. And although she was brought up Christian, the Yoruba belief in pervasive spirits felt familiar, too: “The idea of God being everywhere is very much a part of African-American belief.”

This idea of pervasive spirits was key to Norris' staging of Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King'sHorseman at the National Theatre in 2009: because the audience could see that the stage furniture and props were “alive”, but the white colonial characters couldn't, the audience felt more connected to the Yoruba on stage. Norris himself lived in Nigeria for the first three years of his life, while his father taught in a university there; to him, belief in spirits makes perfect sense. “It's not romantic. There's an energy to things, and the people there have a deep understanding of that.” He remembers reading an interview with a babalawo – a Yoruba priest – who, at the suggestion that his beliefs were mere superstition, replied along the lines of: “If somebody is blind, you cannot talk to them about sight. You can't see it: I can. I'll just have to allow you to remain in ignorance.”

Norris not only admires this attitude, but argues that it helps to explain the tenacity of Yoruba culture, its survival of slavery, its permeation into other lands. That, and the idea of asese – an acceptance of mistake as a part of everyday life and fuel for growth. In a prominent position in his rehearsal room is a whiteboard with an invocation to asese written on it: it's his way of saying “bring it on” to the spirit of chaos that hovers in any rehearsal room.

That dauntlessness will stand him in good stead as Feast opens to the public. Not only do multi-authored plays tend not to go down well with critics, but this is the latest production to emerge from World Stages London, a collaborative project between eight London theatres whose work last year – including Babel, Three Kingdoms and Wah!Wah! Girls – received very mixed reviews. “If I'm honest with you, I'm bracing myself,” says Norris of next week's press night. “But this is a celebration of an amazing culture – you can't deliver that in a lecture form. And our theatre needs to open up. It's no good, this boring literary constriction that we sit within a lot of the time.” And with that, he goes back to the Latin dancers, the beaming rhythms, the orishas hidden in his actors' souls.

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