The Lion and the Jewel

Wole Soyinka
Barbican Pit
(2005)

The second play in the Young Vic's ambitious Young Genius Season was written almost fifty years ago, long before Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka was awarded his Nobel Prize.

It is a simple fable drawn from African village life and falls within a long tradition of storytelling accompanied by song and dance.

The comic opening features the attempts of posh schoolteacher Lakunle, played by Anthony Ofoegbu, to woo Sidi the village beauty (Omonor Imobhio), egged on by his giggling pupils.

She is a flighty young thing and very unimpressed by a modernising man who wants to do without the ancient traditions and, in particular, that of paying a bride price in order to obtain her hand in marriage.

Matters take a turn for the worse for Lakunle when Toyin Oshinaike as the village elder or Bale announces that after five months it is time for him to take a new bride and Sidi is his choice. While the young lady is initially repulsed by an old husband, temptation beckons when the senior wife, played by Shola Benjamin, reveals to the whole town the news that the Lion is suffering from impotence.

The jewel that is Sidi visits the old man, whether from curiosity or malice and, following a bizarre seduction interrupted by the Bale's daily wrestle with a servant twice his size, succumbs to his charms. Only then does the tale's tail begin to twist.

This is an impressive work from a 23 year old and in Chuck Mike's production is filled with joyous exuberance. The large cast is accompanied by a four-man percussion group to give an authentic feel and clearly enjoy themselves.

The pleasure of The Lion and the Jewel is in feeling that the action on the small circular stage could as easily have been witnessed in any Nigerian village hundreds of years ago.

At the same time, Soyinka obliquely addresses the ending of old traditions, as the schoolteacher begins to introduce modern life as he has experienced it in Lagos. The impression is that what we are witnessing might have a long history but the future will gradually lose these traditions forever.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher