Renegade Theatre, Nigeria’s The Winter’s Tale or Ìtàn Ògìnìntìn

Friday 25 May, 7.30pm

There are no bears in Nigeria, or at least it would seem so, from the opening moments of the reworking of The Winter’s Tale by the Renegade Theatre Company of Lagos. In the opening sequences it became abundantly clear to members of the very full audience that a number of keynotes of conventional British theatre productions of this play would be joyously set aside and, indeed, turned on their head. The production opened in attention-grabbling fashion, as is traditional in Yoruban theatrical cultures, with dance, drumming and song (including the remarkable voice of Motúnràyò Oròbíyi who played Ìgba or Time throughout as a Chorus, framing, introducing, transitioning, and often directly engaging with the audience in her sung storytelling). A group of mariners moved with oars to symbolise the journey of a Sicilian lord and the cast-off baby daughter of Şàngó (Leontes) to the dangerous Bohemian coast. There was to be no ‘exit pursued by a bear’; this ‘Antigonus’ (for the most part, characters bore significant Yoruban names in this production) was attacked by robbers and a very willing Globe audience was in the process primed for a show that reworked, rethought and intervened in Shakespeare’s play in all kinds of exciting and memorable ways.

There is much more to say (and think) about how this production refracts the Shakespearean story of oracles and animated statues through a Yoruban cosmology. The company is much influenced in this aspect of their work by their patron, Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, who was one of the proud guests of honour on Friday night much to the obvious delight of the actors. Şàngó is Leontes reimagined as the god of lightning and justice and in their biggest coup de theatre of the night Ǫya (Hermione) is only temporarily revived from her condition of statue in the final act to be snatched from Şàngó a second time and translated into the goddess of the whirlwind. The highly permeable line between human and deity, king and god, life and spirit-life, in Yoruban culture transported Shakespeare’s ending into a whole new ambiguous realm as a result.

One of the great encounters found in this cosmological reworking of The Winter’s Tale was between Autolycus and the trickster figure of Yoruban culture and art, here brilliantly interpreted by Adékúnlé Smart Adéjùmǫ. Her gender-bending, audience-challenging performance, which built quite readily on the significance of tricks and jokes in the Egungan tradition – which itself reaches back to sixteenth-century court theatre in West Africa –  was yet another marker of a night in which this Lagos company truly owned the space and the production.

This was a theatrical ‘event’, an experience that stayed with us as we headed for a bus back along Thameside; it left us full of energy and with a different kind of choreography in our bodies. The director Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun would put that down to what the Globe makes possible in terms of proximity: quite literally, the nearness of actors to performers, but perhaps also what this festival is achieving in terms of enabling encounters, inviting us all to participate; as Ogúntókun put it in words that resonate with me; ‘If you are going to dance with us, you can’t do that from far away.’ The Globe danced, sang, and answered back quite willingly on Friday night.Julie Sanders

Professor Julie Sanders
Professor of Literature and Drama
University of Nottingham