Iyalode of Eti
"Utopia Theatre is a Leeds-based professional theatre company founded by Moji Kareem in 2011. They create old and new plays and re-imagine classics in a way that demonstrates their contemporary relevance and appeal to a new audience." (programme note).
In this instance, the company is re-imagining Webster’s dark and often brutal 17th century revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi by transferring it to a West African cultural context with a setting, costumes, African character names and rituals which transform and enrich the original without losing its essential integrity.
From the opening moments when the cast, dressed in vibrant African fabrics, progresses with slow and stately tread past intricately carved poles to the sound of resonant singing with rhythmic accompaniment, we know we are in for something excitingly different.
Iyalode (Malfi) is the widowed sister of two powerful noblemen (the Cardinal and Ferdinand in the original) who assert their authority over her telling her that she must never re-marry. Iyalode ignores this paternalistic injunction and soon marries her steward Oguntade with whom she later has three children. Meanwhile, a resentful and embittered esrtwhile servant of the Cardinal, the villain of the piece, is employed by the brothers to keep an eye on her. The servant (Bosola) soon suspects she is pregnant and precipitates the birth of her first child by offering her unripe fruit (apricots in the original but an African fruit in this version).
The action closely follows Webster’s scenario and includes Iyalode’s imprisonment, the presentation of a dead hand, an attempt to drive her mad, her eventual murder and the death of her husband. The final scenes show Ferdinand’s descent into guilt-driven madness and, as is usual in plays of this genre, the villains get their comeuppance in the end.
Despite the vicissitudes of the plot, this is anything but a grim, blood-soaked production. The scenes of love making between Iyalode (Kehinde Bankole) and Oguntade (Patrick Diabuah) are passionate and charming, in contrast to the equally fascinating, more cynical and sexually driven encounter between the Cardinal and his mistress. And, in any case, we know we can enjoy a villain as much as if not more than a saintly character.
This is a two-hour version of Webster’s five act play, so inevitably there is simplification, and the African setting has a distancing effect, with its costumes, the music, the adaptation of the language of the text to include local reference and a delightful use of metaphor.
The acting performances are powerful. The vocal resonance of the voices is thrilling, as is the movement, singing and relationship with the audience. Particularly notable are Tunde Euba as the Cardinal, Tunji Falana as Bosola and Patrice Naiambana as Ferdinand, as well as Bankole and Diabuah as Malfi and Antonio.
The production is touring and certainly worth catching. People who haven’t read or seen Webster’s play may be at sea when they watch the performance and, although there is much to enjoy without knowing the original, a synopsis of the plot would be very helpful.
Reviewer: Velda Harris