By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Saturday, November 27, 2010
waste any time; just go and see this. If you haven't been to the
theatre recently this is the best time to return. In the heart of the
British theatre establishment, the Pan-African politics of Fela
Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997), along with the mesmerising rhythms and
radical melodies of Afrobeat, have found a temporary home. And this
revolutionary musical is now cheering up the usually sober Olivier at
the National Theatre.
commentators and critics may have thought that producer Bill T. Jones,
whitewashes many of Fela’s personal flaws. But that’s not really the
point, or is it?
Transferred to London from New York’s Broadway, where it continues its critical acclaim, Fela!
is not just a celebration of a legend but a well-produced musical. On
the stage, Fela! stands head and shoulders above its many West End
competitors: the music is fabulous; there are exuberant dance routines
and performances; and an intriguing life story - well told - if
somewhat sketchily - of a mercurial and influential personality. To
top it all, the 20-plus ensemble works together like a dream. With
Lagos ‘Area Boys’ and Fela’s ‘Queens’ leading excellently choreographed
dance routines, on stage and in the audience. Melanie Marshall’s
Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti (Fela’s formidable mother who was a Nigerian
legend in her own right) and Paulette Ivory’s Sandra Iszadore (who
greatly influenced the young Fela), are superb in their singing roles.
And Sahr Ngaujah is first amongst equals as Fela.
inch of the auditorium that Marina Draghici designed is well utilised
for the metamorphosis from a struggling musician to the heady, and
slightly scary, ganja fumed world of Fela’s Lagos nightclub popularly
known as The Shrine. And there’s an excellent
artwork done by Ghariokwu Lemi that covers every spare wall of the
theatre; from the cover for Fela’s The Black President album to the
African flags and sculptures that pay homage to the Orishas of Yoruba
spirituality; alongside portraits of Black Power leaders and African
independence fighters all overlooked by the image of Funmilayo
Ransom-Kuti – to whom this epic piece is equally dedicated.
90 minutes of Act 1 sprint through Fela’s formative years and
influences – as the son and grandson of Church of England priests, to
the cold and wet London of the 1960s. And to the period when Fela
discovered the likes of John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, African highlife, Cuban music and the soul and funk of James Brown.
It should be no surprise then - even to an audience trained in English reserve - to be invited right from the start to recreate the inclusive experience of a night at the Shrine. Charismatic Sahr Nguajah breaks the ice with Original no Artificiality and B.I.D.(Breaking It Down) - which
in truth is like cracking a polar ice cap - before ripples of movement
fan out in Mexican wave style, among the theatre audience, many of whom
may not be accustomed to rumpshaking in a theatre!
With Fela's music (arranged by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean) expertly performed by the 12-piece Antilabas band, the
narrative swirls back and forth; frenetically, like a marathon Afrobeat
track, but always keeping an eye on the booming bassline, beats and
rhythm - the nyash - which drive the story.
Dramatising the departure of the bandleader and composer from Nigeria after a harrowingly recreated government raid on the Shrine compound that left his mother dead and many wounded, the production shifts between the past and the present, including a mystical dreamtime sequence. Multi-media
projections by Peter Nigrini fill in biographical gaps seamlessly, but
perhaps only for those who know the music and history. But actual
lyrics fused into the sparse dialogue compressing the marathon
compositions and diatribes for which the musician is famous.
Small details make this even more impressive - during Coffin for Head of State
- in memory of the superstars own act of defiance after the death of
his mother - scores of slogan-daubed caskets are paraded through the
auditorium - highlighting today's political demands. Amongst
them are tributes to the late Nigerian writer and activist Ken
Saro-Wiwa and London's Stephen Lawrence. And there's placards denouncing Halliburton, Enron and HSBC during the sequence named after Fela's I.T.T .
those who point to the self-proclaimed President of the Kalakuta
Republic’s controversial marriage to 27 women in 1978 as evidence of
sexism, the portrayal of his Mother and Sandra Isadore is a trenchant
riposte. The standout roles and powerful voices of Paulette Ivory and a
regal Melanie Marshall echo these strong Black women, who moulded
Fela’s evolution as a musician, and as a political and social activist,
This celebration of women is reinforced by the Queens, whose elegant
dancing mixes assertive strength with finesse and grace.
bar has just been raised for musicals. This is theatre on an epic
scale. It’s certainly not for shrinking violets – you can even imagine
that you are in Rio, New Orleans, Trinidad, the Notting Hill Carnival or even the Shrine nightclub in Lagos. And in the words of another star of a Fela’ era, ‘lively up yourself’!
The National Theatre
Until 06 January 2011
Box office: 020-7452 3000
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.