REVIEW: Ìyà-ilé (the first wife) @ The Soho Theatre, London

Ìyà-ilé (the first wife)

By Oladipo Agboluaje
Directed by Femi Elufowoju, jr


Ìyà-Ilé (Yoruba for ‘the first Wife’) is the long-awaited prequel to ‘The Estate’ which enjoyed a successful run at the Soho Theatre, London, in 2006. Both written by Oladipo Agboluaje, the plays chronicle the lives and loves of a well-to-do Nigerian family, the Adeyemis of the Yoruba ethnic group from Western Nigeria.

In ‘The Estate’ we joined the family on the verge of the 21st century as Chief Adeyemi’s second (co-)wife, Helen was mourning his passing away in style and preparing for a wake that no-one would forget. She is joined by her daughter and her begrudging steps sons Yinka and Soji, who resent Helen’s presence and blame her for the demise of the marriage between the Chief and their mother, his first wife, Toyin.

Iya-Ile takes us back 20 years, Chief Adeyemi (Jude Akuwudike) is very much alive and well and Toyin (Antonia Okonma) is getting ready to celebrate her 40th birthday. Here we discover more of what lead to the events in ‘The Estate’; in particular how young Helen went from being a put-upon yet ambitious house-girl to Chief Adeyemi’s trophy-turned- termagant wife.

The first thing that is noticeably different about the two plays is that Iya-Ile is much more political in tone than its predecessor. The full burden of living under military-rule in 1980’s Nigeria is captured vividly with soldiers literally crawling out of every crevice. Watching the play is quite an education for those of us less conversant with the economic and socio-political landscape of Nigeria in 1989.

There is strong commentary in the play on the domestic relationship between master and servant. Although not done in a heavy-handed way, it does not shy away from depicting the deplorable treatment so called ‘house’ girls and boys too often have to suffer at the hands of their employers. The selfish and materialistic aspects of Nigerian culture manifest themselves in these pseudo-feudalistic interactions. The rich, supposedly, are in their rightful place as are the poor. In highlighting these issues, Agboluaje goes some way in trying to explain why someone like Helen would look for a way out by hook or by crook. Her quest for financial freedom and security sees her romancing Chief Adeyemi’s driver, Lomi (Javonne Prince) then his eldest son Yinka (played by the charismatic Babatunde Aléshé) before being lured by the Chief himself.

There is a tongue-in-cheek look at the phenomenon of the middle-class would-be revolutionary, in the form of the youngest Adeyemi son, Soji (an earnest performance by Tobi Bakare). This phenomenon, of course is not unique to Nigeria. Ensconced in comfort and privilege Soji speaks of his good intentions to assist the poor and down-trodden with all the youthful exuberance – and pomp- of his teenage years. Yet in his own backyard all types of social injustices reign supreme. Ìyà-Ilé also captures perfectly the double-standards that riddle a society that holds religion close to its heart but not so close that it could actually result in a change for the better. Charity, for instance, doesn’t extend to the domestic help, marriage vows are open to negotiation and God and church have to compete with the local juju-woman.

That’s not to say Ìyà-Ilé isn’t laced with humour – on the contrary, not only does this prequel strike the right balance between drama and comic relief but the laughs are generally more of a sophisticated nature than that of ‘The Estate’.

Both ‘The Estate’ and Ìyà-Ilé are directed by Renaissance man, Femi Elufowoju Jr. His numerous talents are reflected in this multi-faceted production. The cast weave in and out of the audience, as they chase and burn thieves or soldiers hunt down criminals, making the play heave with life.

There are a few superbly simple, well-choreographed, musical interludes in which the cast break it down with some funked-out moves and sweet harmony-rich singing (courtesy of Choral Consultant, the multi-talented Ayo-Dele Edwards). There’s not a dull moment. You don’t even mind that there is no interval because it would probably spoil the pace of things.

Agboluaje pays close attention to detail where Yoruba tradition is concerned, whether it be youngsters genuflecting in the presence of their elders or Toyin showing deference to her husband by calling him Baba-Yinka (Father of Yinka) instead of his first name. The chemistry between the cast is a good one, helping to drive the play along. My only gripe is that the Nigerian accent of some members of the cast was way off the mark.

Nevertheless there are some quality performances worthy of mention. Marcy Oni shows off her versatility as an actress as she takes on several roles in the play. From unnamed house-help to the disingenuous, social climbing coquette, Mrs Okomilo, Oni leaves a strong impression on the audience each time.

Estella Daniels gives a commendable performance as the beleaguered Helen who has managed not to lose any of her feistiness or aspirations for a better life. Miss Daniels can seriously hold a tune, too. Okunma is convincing as the abrasive and ill-tempered Toyin, taking out her marital frustrations on anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot.

Akuwudike is equally impressive as the archetypal self-centred Nigerian patriarch; convinced that putting food on his family’s table justifies his playboy lifestyle elsewhere. Chucky Venn’s portrayal of the unctuous, opportunistic Reverend Robertson and his ersatz American accent was a particular favourite of mine. His special relationship with ‘Gaard’ doesn’t seem to preclude him from telling the odd white-lie.

A major appeal of Ìyà-Ilé is that the levity never takes away from its exploration of the deeper problems facing modern Nigeria, such as the vicious cycle of venality; how even the ideals of those who claim to be catalysts for change are soon sacrificed at the altar of personal ambition. Chez Adeyemi, things fare no better as rampant infidelity and domestic violence rear their ugly heads, perhaps a fair representation of what goes on in many homes. The final, violent showdown between Chief and Toyin is very compelling – maybe a bit too realistic for comfort. Alas that is life, and good theatre never shirks from accurate depictions of the human condition, palatable or not.

Ìyà-Ilé is a lot more mature and layered than ‘The Estate’, which tended to border on pantomime in its lesser moments. The wider context that the prequel gives the whole story adds a welcome complexity to the characters. There are no clear cut heroes and heroines here as each shows less than redeemable qualities. Yet, even the most disagreeable characters are afforded some humanity. The play seeks not to justify their behaviour but at least offer an explanation.

Far from being one long diatribe of all that’s wrong with the country, Ìyà-Ilé recreates the feel of the many unique and beautiful things about Nigerian culture too – The songs of Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade, the cuisine, the gorgeously ornate traditional dress – or wrappa – on display, pidgin English and familiar Nigerian idioms… I took my mum with me to the press night and I watched as her eyes glazed over with nostalgia whilst she mouthed the words to familiar songs. All in all, Ìyà-Ilé is a rewarding, thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience.

Ìyà-Ilé now showing until 20 June 2009 at the Soho Theatre.
21 Dean Street, London, WC1D 3NE.
Cost: £10-20.
For more information or to book tickets please visit www.sohotheatre.com or call +44 207 478 0100.

By Tola Ositelu