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Yoruba Winter’s Tale at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

By WOLE OGUNTOKUN

A THIRTEEN-man cast and I just returned from performing the London showing of Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’, on a stage built in honour of the bard himself. Shakespeare’s Globe is a replica of the one William Shakespeare practised on as an actor and playwright, and it played host between late April and early June to 37 international touring companies from around the world including the Nigerian-based “Renegade Theatre”of which I am artistic director.

The play was staged twice at the globe, meeting near-frenzied responses from a crowd made up of Africans and Europeans and though it was in the Yoruba language (none of the 37  plays was in English) the audiences at both presentations showed their appreciation.

The cast had to take a bow four times after the presentation on the final day, sent back on stage each time by the Globe’s resident stage managers, Becky and Adele, who stood backstage studying the audience’s moods through television monitors.

At the end of it all, the director of the festival, Tom Bird, came backstage to hug cast members, later describing the play as “an unforgettable coup” and a “mind-blowing show”. The Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe since 2006, Dominic Dromgoole, came backstage also, pumping hands enthusiastically with cast members. He told me a few times ‘You must be exceedingly proud of yourself’. I was.

At the reception organised for the cast by the Globe which went on till the early hours of the morning, Dominic described us to a jammed venue as having put fire in the belly of the play, and blood in its veins, making it unlike any production of The Winter’s Tale he had ever had the opportunity to see.

*A scene from the play

Some audience members who had bought tickets for every play in the Cultural Olympiad (they were called Globe Olympians) told us of how highly placed they considered our production amongst all the shows they had seen. One said she had not seen an encore like ours in watching plays for twenty years at the Globe.

Sometime between May and June last year, I had commissioned the Oyo State-based Chief Tade Ipadeola to translate Shakespeare’s play into Yoruba but then came the problem of what to do with the translation. From a play notorious for being one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and which has always been known to have a sad and wistful air about it, I decided to make the two Kings (Leontes and Polixenes), the Yoruba gods, ‘Sango’ and ‘Ogun’, and Hermione, wife of Leontes, ‘Oya’, the Yoruba goddess of the whirlwind.

I took a non-linear approach to the play, starting it in the middle instead and in the process removing one of the most improbable stage directions ever written by Shakespeare, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. For one, there are no bears in Yoruba land and we settled to have armed bandits attack Antigonus (Agbomabiwon) the King’s messenger instead.

Unlike Shakespeare’s end and our commissioned translation that had Hermione come back to life and everyone as happy as they could be, I directed she should first come to life and then become a statue once more, seeing that in many of our stories, there are always ‘just deserts’.

In this case, it would be Leontes (Sango) learning the true consequences of his unpardonable behaviour. Professor Julie Sanders, Chair in English Literature and Drama as well as Head of the School of English in the Faculty of Arts at Nottingham University in her published review, described our production as ‘a show that reworked, rethought and intervened in Shakespeare’s play in all kinds of exciting and memorable ways’.

Crowd winning performance

She described cast member Sunkanmi Adebayo who played Camillo (Adeagbo) as having put up a ‘crowd-winning performance’, Motunrayo Orobiyi as singing ‘glorious framing songs’, and wrote that the interpretation of ‘Autolycus’ (Ikoko), “in a gender-bending, audience-challenging performance by Anike Alli-Hakeem was a brilliant interpretation”

According to her, ‘the Globe danced, sang and answered back quite willingly on Friday night leaving the audience with an experience that stayed as they headed for a bus back along Thameside…leaving the audience with energy and with a different kind of choreography in their bodies.’

In the UK’s Guardian Newspaper of Wednesday, May 30, Imogen Tilden’s review wrote that ‘despite a startling twist, the Nigerian production of Shakespeare’s late romance translates it into something rich and strange, while keeping its magical essence at its heart’.

According to her, ‘Leontes (Olawale Adebayo) is a powerful presence and hugely impressive as a King while Hermione (Kehinde Bankole) shines with inner and outer beauty; so winning are her smiles, so generous her attentions to Polixenes, that you can almost sympathise with Leontes’ jealous fantasies’. She considered Hermione coming back to life and then turning back to a statue as ‘the most dazzling theatrical coup of the play’

Mark Hudson, multiple-award winning writer and journalist, described the play on www.theartsdesk.com  as being about ‘cultural discovery for non-Yoruba speakers, paralleled by trying to keep up with the action’ and went on to say ‘it was a dynamic interpretation that blurred the boundaries of drama, music and dance.’

From all over the world, there have been messages of congratulations. In Lagos on Sunday, May 20, just before we departed for London, we had put up the show to work out its kinks in collaboration with the British Council and the Muson Centre and had been pleased at how proud the audience was of us and what we would be showing to the world.

On the closing night in London, the cast and I were congratulated by everyone we met at the reception and we all were giddy with the exhilaration of having put up a greatly appreciated show. Undergraduate and Postgraduate Nigerian students of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) told us of how proud they were, and up and down the venue, theatre lovers celebrated us and we revelled in it.


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