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Brighton Fringe 2023

Esther’s Revenge

Pawstudios Africa - Director - Kenneth Uphopho

Genre: Debate, Drama, Historical, Immersive, Interactive, Storytelling, True-life

Venue: The Fisherman's Museum


Low Down

What lengths do we go to for the one we love? What series of events can push a person to commit such a definitive act, a moment of sheer barbaric rage? The penultimate crime – murder. Esther’s Revenge is based on the real life case study of Ada Esther Johnson (Ada Ocha Ntu), a woman who was trialed and convicted of murdering her husband in 1956, sentenced to death in Lagos, Nigeria. What may have appeared as a clean-cut case is far from the truth as various factors come into play, as the director and writer (Kenneth Uphopho) presents in this gripping interpretation of ‘Esther’s truth.’

Esther’s Revenge is not for light viewing, tackling themes of exploitation, racism, rape, colonisation and violence against women in a very believable performance from Bola Stephen-Atitebi, which some people may find unsettling.

Remaining shows at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival: 31st May, 1st June, 2nd June and 3rd June.


1956 – Lagos – Nigeria – Broad Street Prison – Setting the scene for this afflictive story was the writer and director himself – Kenneth Uphopho, dressed in an authentic warder costume towering over his unassuming audience as he greeted us outside The Fisherman’s Museum – Brighton. Very quickly one had to say goodbye to the sunshine, venturing into the sparse surroundings of a bare room with only chairs and one wooden table. The prison warder was very assertive in his manner, quickly changing the tone from relaxed to tense as he instructed us – not to talk to Esther, not to give her anything and not to take anything from her. These instructions soon had to be repeated back in true military fashion.

As we ventured into The Old Net Room each person was instructed where to sit, with certain individuals being selected as jury members. From this brief introduction, it was resoundingly clear that soon a decision would be placed upon us – a decision of great complexity – would Esther remain incarcerated or be sentenced to death by hanging? Shortly after this moment, Esther (Bola Stephen-Atitebi) was dragged up the stairs to be ‘shown’ to us – already in an emotional state that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, almost wanted to get out of my chair to speak to her. A chance to hear the real story of a woman on death row, an event which would be highly unlikely in this format, and that’s what makes this work powerful – the true power of the raw spoken word. For me, the real ‘grit’ of the show begins when Esther is left alone in the space with us, her audience – bearing all, gazing into the eyes of her audience, taking us back to that very moment she met her husband, who was formally known as Mark Hall.

At first, Esther familiarises herself with her surroundings, looking unsure whether she should speak or remain muted in this space – Can she trust us? Circling around her audience, she composes herself quickly to slowly speak to the people around her, very informally as she uses the audience to identify and connect with the world she knew before the murder of her lover in 1953. At first, she tells us a lie about how she met her lover – almost too good to be true, this soon became dismembered as she ‘embraced’ this moment of freedom and liberation, to share her own story, which wouldn’t be falsified by the media or any masculine dominance within her life up until this point. What proceeds is part factual and artistic dramatisation, as Uphopho informed me after the production that the whereabouts of Esther to this day are unknown, despite trying to make contact; no sighting of her has been made since her release in the 1960s. What unveils is a woman’s story. A voice in the darkness that needed to be heard – the world of our protagonist Esther – as she reenacts her memories of oppression and violence inflicted upon her by the racist supremacist (Mark Hall) who tears her down, feeding off of her empathetic nature and business acumen.

“In my research, I found out that she didn’t really get the representation that she deserved at the time. She’s a woman first of all. . . In a country where patriarchy was very dominant. . . So I wanted to give her some kind of representation.” Kenneth Uphopho

Stephen-Atitebi holds no emotion back, as she romanticises the moment her lover Mark saves her from a violent brawl as a group of men mistake her for a prostitute, she is overcome by his chivalry, as he gallantly tends to her defense keeping her attackers at bay while he places a jacket over her torn clothing. Not only is this part of the story unnerving but a clear indication of Esther’s trauma, as she defends her lover as a ‘good man’ – knowing full well in the moment she addresses her jurors the pain he would later impose upon her.

Esther continues to convincingly share how her love for Mark blossomed, as she explains when they consummated their love for one another outside of her father’s home, an element of the story that appeared to haunt her – chilling. Blind sighted by her love for him, she continues to be the perfect girlfriend, cooking meals and offering insightful advice on his business plans for a growing transport business. Very soon, after feelings had evolved Esther finds a letter, addressed to Mark – communicating that he has another lover. Shattered by this discovery Esther attempts to confront Mark, as Stephen-Atitebi explains to her audience how the news was received and physically demonstrated a fight that would lead to more suffering – It’s no surprise, the audience feel nothing but empathy as we’re shown the truths of her abusive relationship – far from loving and chivalrous.

What is commendable about this production is the power of ‘one-voice’ in the room and the intense physical storytelling, that demonstrates how Esther was treated as a slave to the very man that ‘saved’ her. Mark’s animalistic presence is felt throughout the story, even though this character does not have a voice in this script – he is always there. Stephen-Atitebi demonstrates this with powerful accuracy, as she physicalises her abuse and suffering, flinging her body around the space, whilst the audience has no opportunity to avert their eyes – everyone had to watch. Her performance was so believable that I almost forgot I was watching a play, her range of emotion in between the violence and stillness was unforgettable and perturbing – as audience members struggling to watch the violence forced upon Esther.

If you’ve read the brief about Esther’s Revenge, you will know how Mark’s fate was sealed – the events that lead up to this in Stephen-Atitebi’s interpretation of Esther are simply harrowing and upsetting – ultimately leading her audience to a silent moment for reflection, as we see her agony come to a climatic end. What is interesting about this story is Uphopho’s direction of the devised piece, as the glue holding this story together is an immersive element to debate Esther’s fate – “Engaging in some sort of social experiment” – enlisting a chosen jury member from the audience to lead a debate on the outcome for Esther’s case. This is an interesting idea that could perhaps be developed further – are we using/given legislation of the here and now when forming a verdict – consequently eradicating the Nigerian court protocol from the 1950s? Or do we go with humanity and the subjective pain we feel for Esther in her self-defense? More instructions on the ‘what next’ for Esther would have been interesting to work with once the audience were left alone to debate Esther’s fate. I know for me personally, I needed to digest what I had just seen played out before me. Interestingly, the verdict (guilty or not guilty) adapts slightly each time depending on the audiences’ personal experience, demographic and openness to discuss the important themes of Esther’s story (racism, violence against women, rape, and colonisation) in a space full of strangers.

I was shocked to discover the juxtaposition in this story – The prison where Esther originally awaited her death in Lagos, has now become a recreational space entitled ‘Freedom Park’ for families to enjoy, as the director Uphopho tells me, through simply stumbling into this area one day, he discovered a sign saying ‘Esther’s Revenge’ on one of the bars; one simple sign led to the seed in this production “I was intrigued by the story.” This is a compelling shocking story that still has left me with questions – that is the sign of excellent script writing, that was convincingly relived through the raw choices of Stephen-Atitebi’s performance. What leaves me inconsolable is that so many women have gone through events of this nature and continue to be exploited. Esther’s Revenge is a daring piece of work that needs to be seen as a piece of theatre in its own right – yes – but more importantly, to educate, leading further discussions around the themes discussed in this review. Stephen-Atitebi’s interpretation of Esther gives a voice to women who perhaps would not speak out about their trauma or be giving a platform to do so. Congratulations to Pawstudios Africa for bringing this story to Brighton Fringe Festival – powerful and memorable is an understatement.