FringeReview UK 2018
Rotimi Babatunde adapts Lola Shoneyin’s 2011 novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Director Femi Elufowoju Jr also directs the music where Ayo-Dele Edwards is choral arranger. ULTZ’s flexible set gives space to the choreography of Kemi Durosinmi, and Ryan Joseph Stafford’s clean spare lighting. Shola Ajayi’s costumes are breathtakingly vivid.
‘If not that women needed men’s seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.’ So speaks the mother of the first of a man’s wives: her daughter in fact lusts for the young tomato-woman.
There’s a ripple in Lola Shoneyin’s famous 2011 novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, that Rotimi Babatunde’s shaken out: it hits the audience in the Arcola Theatre’s intimate Studio 1 like a hot blast. Director Femi Elufowoju Jr brings a swirl of that world in with Yoruba singing and instrument-playing that renders comic tragedies and damaged farces exuberant and unforgettable. He’s music director too. Shola Ajayi’s costumes are breathtakingly vivid, spun into dance as they are.
In the Arcola’s flexible space, with few props – in fact it’s often food – everything’s taken up with the way storytelling’s overborn by the outrageously physical. ULTZ’s set simply evaporates and reforms to give space to the choreography of Kemi Durosinmi, and Ryan Joseph Stafford’s clean spare lighting. Laughter explodes like the sweets tossed to a few in the front row. But there’s a bittersweet kernel to unwrap. The genius of this production is to keep hilarity airborne whilst slipping in something poisonous.
Patriarchy, misandry, fertility and sex roil across this vibrant series of tableaux like a tin roof shuddering. No wonder: three wives enact their ecstatic couplings and it’s clear who’s missing out. In fact it’s a fourth wife’s arrival, Marcy Dolapo Oni’s Bolanle, which sets revelation and disaster in motion in a way her damaged naivety could never have envisaged.
So why does this attractive twenty-five year-old graduate accept the rancid bonhomie of a much older man, Patrice Naiambana’s Baba Segi? There’s no shadow of understanding thrown between him and Bolanle to explain her choice.
In taking him Bolanle also accepts polygamy in a traditional household; with two wives immediately setting about making life hell. In a world where the ancient absorbs the new – the matriarch acquires a car and shop – witchcraft and medicine collide too; but which knows more about its opposite comes as a surprise.
On top of this Baba Segi’s displeased his youngest wife produces no child in two years of marriage. She’s ‘barren’. He already has seven children but mounting braggadocio requires hers too. The need to unravel truth is as self-defeating as any Greek hero. Picking apart one truth explodes another.
As Bolanle recounts her hospital trip to test if she’s ‘barren’ another narrative springs from her as she returns to confide something harrowing to her mother. And quite another erupts
from her ageing husband; against his will he’s tested too.
This, with Diana Yekkini’s unimpressed nurse: her clinical finality requires Baba Segi to – what? He’s incredulous too: these medicos know every traditional saw and remedy. Still, he’s a detumescent ego required to ‘deposit your sperm inside’ a sample bottle.
The groaning panoply of a fantasy chorus explodes with dry ice as the finale of Act One – easily the most side-splitting since Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Just as something very different is related by Baba Segi’s latest wife. Naiambana’s required to play a brief second part, again as if they’re two sides Bolanle has to confront. Babatunde’s double strand provokes a climax here both hilarious and chilling. There’s a disastrous subplot too, set in train by the wives, leading somewhere different altogether.
Magnificently satirized by Naiambana, everything in Baba Segi’s generosity is ego-directed: tossing children presents, the fond expectation his wives enjoy bullishly hard thrusting – no-one’s spared their graphic pain. But their stories tell us why they know the difference.
Other characters are vividly delineated. The matriarch Jumoké Fashola’s unforgiving Iya Segi, and the third wife her confederate, vindictive experienced Iya Femi relished by Layo-Christina Akinlude. Christina Oshunniyi’s simple but decent Iya Tope centres the swirl of the others’ anger in her calm, but is as raucous in her desires having discovered her sexuality late. Desire for a meat-seller’s poignantly contrasted by having to pay him. ‘Sex is sweet… but money’s sweeter’ he confides. There’s equal appeal in Tania Nwachukwu’s Segi, also one of the foremost drummers: the awakening daughter who finds kinship with Bolanle: her mother Iya Segi aspirates that name with delicious scorn like a catch-phrase.
There are some superb vignettes: Ayan de First’s Tunde, distant kin to Iya Femi, and a suddenly clinical doctor; Ayo-Dele Edwards Bolanle’s mother who’s also the choral arranger, Usifu Jailoh’s Taju the driver and hapless rider of more things than his pay. Details fly past in a pacey but always lucid storytelling where even more remarkably given that, the energy never drops.
Of the two heading the ensemble it’s enough to say they’re simply foremost in an outstanding production. Dolapo Oni’s Bolanle brings a rapt mystery then a powerful agency to her role. Naiambana’s sudden switch to an urbane Mercedes driver marks just one of those shifts which undermine our view of his character as an unreconstructed single dimension. Naiambana locates his humanity as surely as Dolapo Oni flourishes hers. You must see this.