Writer: Debo Oluwatuminu
Director: Moji Kareem
Designer: Emma Williams
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Leeds-based theatre company Utopia Theatre specialises in the re-imagining of classic texts and The Duchess of Malfi transposes rather well to the African tribal world of Debo Oluwatuminu’s Iyalode of Eti. The obsessive sense of family, the wilful use of torture, the bleakly cruel humour, work as well in a timeless African setting as in Renaissance Italy. The potency of the spirit world fits well with the macabre narrative, especially in the character of the Cardinal, transformed into Oluawo, a bridge to the supernatural, as he sits enthroned in a chair decorated with skulls. Oluwatuminu also finds a splendid African equivalent for the madness of Ferdinand (Oloye Olorogun in this version).
The Duchess of Malfi, by the Jacobean playwright John Webster, is one of those tragic melodramas where, as the murders multiply, one fears there may be nobody left to speak the final words of the play. At times characters’ motivation seems to be to kill and torture for its own sake, even against their own interests. However, the essential plot is a simple family squabble which remains the same in this reimagining. Iyalode (the Duchess), recently widowed, is forbidden to re-marry by her brothers, Oluawo and Oloye Olorogun, but secretly marries the low-born Oguntade and bears him three sons. The scene is set for plotting and murder, with the enigmatic figure of Esubiyi (originally Bosola), spy and hitman, but with an intermittent integrity, deeply involved.
Moji Kareem’s production begins with the slow-motion dance and evocative chanting of the funeral procession of Iyalode’s first husband. The music under the direction of percussionist Sola Akingbola is effectively atmospheric throughout, as are the dynamic spirit dancesand the production might benefit from amore widespread use of both. Emma Williams’ design looks good with its carved house posts, as do Adesola Obebe’s traditional costumes, but the circular central acting area is a little cluttered, resulting in a performance that is surprisingly static in between bursts of spectacular action.
At times the narrative could be clearer and character identification is not easy at first, but there are strong performances throughout the cast of 11. Kehinde Bankole finds the dignity and humanity of Iyalode, almost demure at first, independent-minded, riven by powerful emotion. As Oloye Olorugun Patrice Naiambana has a manic intensity and power and a terrifying unpredictability. Tundo Euba manages to suggest the sardonic and cynical Renaissance Cardinal together with Oluawo’s uncanny mysticism and supernatural powers. Tunji Falana is suitably ambiguous as Esubiyi, sharing with the audience both his gleeful delight in his ugly work and the doubts of his conscience. Patrick Diabuah is an upstanding Oguntade and the teamwork of the whole ensemble is always impressive.
Touring Regionally | Image: Anthony Robling