A Feast of Yoruba Culture

12 Feb


Directed by Rufus Norris

A Young Vic and Royal Court Theatre co-production

At the Young Vic London, until 2nd March 2013

Young_Vic_Feast_002Photograph Feast company –  Richard Hubert Smith

From 18th-century Nigeria to present-day London via Brazil, the USA and Cuba, Feast at the Young Vic tells the story of Yoruba culture across three continents and three hundred years.

The play is directed by award-winner Rufus Norris (London Road, Death and the King’s Horsemen) and the script is a collaboration between five international playwrights – Yunior Garcia Aguilera (Cuba), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Marcos Barbosa (Brazil), Tanya Barfield (USA) and Gbolahan Obiesan (UK). It is the tale of the endurance of the Yoruba faith and culture, and of the crafting of diaspora identities.

The show’s music and movement provide the dramatic energy and create a powerful sense of time and place. Lysander Ashton’s projections dance across a beaded curtain as the ensemble cast move in and out of view. In an early scene the names of slaves scrawled on a ship’s register float on water and the outlines of bodies, as live music mixes with the sounds of sea and sand to take us on the journey from West Africa to the plantations of the New World. Throughout, the writing and music are woven with Yoruba words, sounds and proverbs and the staging echoes the trickery of the deity Esu.

The collaboration which is at the heart of the production is also, at times, its weakness. There is a certain disjointedness in the format and the strands never quite come together. At its best the writing is energetic and quick-witted, as in the sisterly banter which introduces the three protagonists Yemaja, Oshun and Oya. Nanaa Agyei-Ampadu as Oshun shines in this scene and others – and with Louis Mahoney (Papa Legba) she is among the most versatile of the performers. In other moments the dialogue and acting verge on self-conscious and we begin to feel like we are being lectured. The scene in 21st century London feels stiff and unnatural, although the bawdy humour gets the biggest laughs of the night.

Some of the more interesting themes are raised in passing but left unexplored. There are lines which hint at how African cultures can be romanticised, or fetished, including by those of African heritage. Aguilera’s standout Cuba scene comes closest to engaging with these intercultural questions when Yemaya  (Noma Dumezweni) asks ‘Who do you think I am, Pocahontas?’ and American tourist John Smith (Daniel Cerqueira) frantically explains, while cowering under a table, that he is not prejudiced because he voted Obama.

The constituent parts of Feast may not make an entirely satisfactory whole but the production certainly takes us on a visually striking journey and succeeds in telling the epic story of Yoruba culture. One is left with a real sense of the diverse talents who have come together in the performance.

 Written by Grace Benton

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