Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Theatre review: Feast

A co-production between the Royal Court, who originally commissioned it, and the Young Vic where it now premieres, Feast aims to give a taste of the Yoruba diaspora: A culture that began in Nigeria, but largely due to the slave trade crossed the Atlantic and now exists in slightly different forms in a number of parts of the world. Rufus Norris' production has five writers (with a further five having contributed to the early stages of its development,) brought in to give an idea of what Yoruba culture means to Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil, the USA and the UK. We follow incarnations of three deities, Yemaya (Noma Dumezweni,) Oshun (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) and Oya (Michelle Asante) as they journey around the world and down the centuries, dealing with issues as small as family spats and as big as slavery; at the end we see four versions of the titular feast, as families from each country celebrate big occasions in their own distinct variations of the Yoruba tradition.

Also recurring throughout the play are the trickster god Elegba (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,) who in one of the show's best gags gets the blame for one of Nigeria's most notorious exports; and Louis Mahoney as the older Papa Legba who, in the Young Vic's continued flaunting of the unwritten rule about working with children and animals, is accompanied wherever he goes by a live chicken that refuses to lay an egg for him.

I know nothing of the Yoruba (I even had to have my pronunciation of it corrected - the accent is on the "o") so there was a lot here that was new and interesting to me about the culture, like the idea that everyone is given a pair of the 401 deities as "parents," and this combination determines much about the people they will become. This idea comes into play in one of the more entertaining sections, the Cuban scene where thanks to the attentions of a jealous spirit "father," Dumezweni's self-described "communist whore" finds herself able to give uncannily accurate advice to American clients about how to survive the 2008 banking crisis. In Gbolahan Obisesan's London-set segment, Oya becomes an Olympic medalist who gives as good as she gets when Elegba tries to tell her who she should or should not be sleeping with; some lovely sparring performances between Asante and Holdbrook-Smith, backed up by some interested movement work from choreographer George Céspedes.

These sorts of play put together by a large number of writers come with a number of pitfalls, largely in the mixed quality of the different pieces and the varied ways each writer comes up with to look at the subject matter. Even more so here, where the subject matter is not only so vast, but comes with so many regional variations (according to a post-show Q&A with Norris, Dumezweni and Obisesan, the choice of which deities to put at the centre of the story was easy, as they were among the few of the 401 available who are equally well-known in all five countries.) It's perhaps best to see what we're left with as a number of snapshots representing different elements of the diaspora, and nothing like a definitive picture of the tradition. Given all this, Norris' production is extraordinarily good at pulling together the disparate elements, helped hugely by Lysander Ashton's video sequences which are projected almost constantly on the side walls and, in Katrina Lindsay's design, on a huge beaded curtain that glides up and downstage.

So Feast manages to take what could have been a real mess of conflicting ideas and create a show that, if it doesn't exactly flow that smoothly, through the performances, design and almost constant element of music and dance, is a consistently entertaining celebration of a culture, and of the way a single starting point can lead to many different places.

Feast by Yunior García Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield and Gbolahan Obisesan is booking until the 28th of February at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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