Playwright and theatre director, Bisi Adigun, is a Nigerian based in Ireland. He is also a producer, scholar and founder of Arambe Productions. In this interview with Adedayo Adejobi he talks about his love for the stage and his experience of directing one of Prof. Wole Soyinka’s plays, ‘Death and the King’s Horsemen’. Adigun also talks about inner struggles he faces as father trying to teach his daughter Yoruba
You decided to disrupt the norm by deconstructing ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. What influenced it and why Prof. Wole Soyinka’s work?
I set out to deconstruct Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. It’s a very good play and relevant to the political dilemma Nigeria is dealing with. The plåççay has been done severally, and I feel the way Soyinka writes, one needs to understand his mastery of language to understand what he is saying. When I came to Nigeria last month, I stayed with some of my nieces, who are graduates of Obafemi Awolowo University. When I told them I’ll like to do ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, they said they wouldn’t see it because they wouldn’t understand the play. This was one of the motivations. The writer has written the drama, it is the director’s work to make the play accessible to the audience. What I did was to make sure that people were not alienated by Soyinka’s mastery of English language.
Was there a theatrical approach to drive home the point?
I did my first degree in Ife. We were bombarded with Aristotle and other foreign people. I did my master’s in 1996 in Drama. When I travelled out of the country, I was in class one day when I mentioned Soyinka. Out of 12 of us in class, only one person knew who Soyinka was. That was the day I started studying Soyinka. Soyinka thinks global and uses local (images) to discuss global issues. He believes Yoruba have three stages of existence: the living, the dead and the unborn and it is those three stages that must constantly re-energise for harmony. For Soyinka, there is a stage in between those three stages; called it the fourth stage, where he believes his protagonist in Yoruba tragedy must willingly die for the benefit of the society. Out of all the books Soyinka has written, the one that epitomises the theory of the fourth stage is Eleshin-Oba, the death of the king’s horsemen. When Soyinka writes his play, he is not a director, but when he is directing his play, he locks the writer out.
Knowing how sentimental Soyinka is to his works, how did you succeed in this project?
I invited Prof. Soyinka to the opening night, and he responded saying opening night definitely out but I’ll try and make it one of the nights subsequently. So, on Monday in the morning, someone told me Prof. Soyinka is coming to see a show in the evening. I got a bit rattled, as I planned on watching the play in the audience without my actors knowing, and then I’ll take notes during the afternoon performance. When they said Prof. Soyinka was coming I got a bit all rattled up, knowing full well that Prof. Soyinka doesn’t like taking a spotlight from his plays. What he does is, he sneaks in and he sneaks out, that was what I was expecting. But this time around, he came in when I got there. I was told that he was at the restaurant. I went to greet him and his wife, we had a chat and then after then he was happy to come into the theatre even before the light went down. He sat down with his wife, so we started. He saw everything. The truth is this: Prof never shows any reaction about his performances. But everybody told me that if he doesn’t like a show, he won’t stay till the end. This time, he stayed till the end. He heard my last remark and also clapped for the actors. Everybody said that was a very good sign, and Jahman who is very close to him as well, said he enjoyed the show.
How does that make you feel?
One of my ambitions in life was to do a show at Terra Kulture. I didn’t only do a show at Terra Kulture, but to stage one of the best plays ever written by a Nigerian playwright, and then to have the man himself in the audience was a dream come true. I cannot put any price on it. For me, I will call that a pinnacle of my career as theatre maker.
Observing the Nigerian theatre in relation to the global landscape, how would you rate it?
Nigerian theatre is gravitating more towards spectacle and at the expense of the content. So, when I give you a line to say rather than believing the line would generate laughter, you try and make the line funny. Instead of an actor to be concerned about his characterisation, he is concerned about cloth and the make-up. Rather than acting from within-outward, people act outside-inward. How do I look? Do I look fine? Do I look beautiful? I don’t want you to give me superficial acting. You must understand what you are saying and why. That is where the acting is.
Observing the crop of Nigerian directors, would you say they are meeting up with global best practice?
The truth of the matter is that I have seen a few theatres since I came and I will say I was blown away by ‘Hear word’. That is what I’m saying about the spectacle and the content. I saw a girl in the play, named Omono. She played a role of Fela, a lady abused by her husband, and an old woman. By the end of the show, I was looking for the girl who played Fela, I couldn’t see her. I also saw ‘Heartbeat’ by Joke Silva and Olu Jacobs at Terra Kulture. I enjoyed it. It was musical and beautifully done. I also saw ‘Stable’ by Ben Tomoloju and Tina Mba. I think what Nollywood has done for us is, you don’t value what you have until you are about losing it. There is a difference in watching a movie and real-life show. In real-life show, you see things happen in real time and there is no mediation. When you lose your line, you lose your line. Theatre is beginning to regain its prominence, place of pride as a cultural form to this country. Toyin Oshinaike, Segun Adefila, Ropo Ewenla and Wole Oguntokun are setting the pace in Nigerian theatre. I believe theatre has its place in contributing to the discourse of any society. On seeing Wakaa, the musical, I heard Ajekun Iya nio je. If I wrote a play now, Ajekun Iya must be in it because I want to make it relevant to what is going on and when people see familiarity they know they are not alienated. I think there are crops of good Directors coming up. It is my hope that Nollywood showcases Nigeria through theatre.
What does it feel like being a lecturer in African theatre at Trinity College?
I left Nigeria for London in 1996, and was there for three years. I relocated to Ireland. As soon as I landed, something just told me this is where I should be. In London, I worked with Peter Badejo, BBC, and BBC radio. We did the ‘Gods are not to blame’ for BBC radio. I was going to be in Ireland for two weeks; before I knew it, it became home for me. I realised most of the shows that required a black person, the black person was always the dreg of the society, a prostitute and the black man has to leave wherever the play is set for things to return to order. So, I began to think on Irish theatre diversity, I had to do so by the order. That led me to set up my production company, Arambe Productions in 2003. It was time for black people to play roles that black audiences would be proud of. I eventually did my PhD between 2007 and 2013 on Soyinka. My argument is that most of Soyinka’s plays are not done within; they are always done outside Nigeria. That is why I said he thinks local but he writes global. After my doctorate, I was called to lecture. So, I designed African Theatre course for them. To date, I take African theatre and post-colonial theatre.
I had lived in Britain, so the culture shock happened in Britain I couldn’t read people’s expression. But I got used to people kissing on the streets, rush hour in Oxford, people drinking, white man getting legless, every Friday.
Will you rather be in Nigeria or Ireland?
The moment you travel, you are reminded that you are not from here. We were supposed to be rehearsing somewhere in Yaba, along Queens College Road, so I decided to check the place, as my actors’ welfare is my responsibility. I went to see the place at night, when I returned it was closed. I’ll rather be where human lives are valued and my potentials realised. Of course, George Orwell says ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. What frustrates me is when you come home, you find yourself in a jungle. Nigeria is a good place to live but no matter where you live, when you look around and you see so much penury, it makes your richness stink.
Why did you marry a white woman?
Marrying my wife, I didn’t see colour or race, I saw love. I moved to Ireland when there were few Nigerians there. Besides, there was some joy about her that I wanted to be part of. Beko and Ola Rotimi married white women. I saw and I felt there was something right about her. It wasn’t a planned thing. She has given me a daughter and a good life. I have to say to you, after that ‘playboy’, I fought some battles regarding copyright laws and it was a long drawn battle. She stood by me at the expense of getting excommunicated.
How did you cope with the legal battle?
I won’t say I have overcome it. The play was my idea. I invited one of their most important writers to come with me to write. My company helped to get money to commission both of us to write it. Eventually, it became a huge success. Some of the things they should have put in place while we were working together, they didn’t put it in place because they weren’t sure how successful it would be. Eventually, we got a lawyer and she didn’t do her job. They did a deal with my co- author and this led to a court battle. It is not over yet, so I won’t like to talk about it. I have learnt not to have any skeleton in my cupboard. I wouldn’t have been able to fight if I had something to hide. It was destabilising and painful. I believe the fight I have fought is for the future generation.
Married to a woman from another race, how have you been able to cope?
Before we had our first child, she said I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know what she meant, until we had the child and I realised we had equal duty to take care of the kid. Growing up, I never saw any of my uncles carry or dance with their children. After the christening, the woman’s department comes alive. I couldn’t fathom that but I enjoyed it. As a pharmacist, there were times she had to go and work and I took care of my daughter and I enjoyed that. Similarly, I love Nigerian food; she couldn’t cook that; most of the time I do the cooking. I now realise I actually don’t mind cooking. I find it therapeutic. I would have loved to speak my language to my daughter. But every time I start speaking to my daughter in Yoruba, she would ask what that is, so I have to translate. I am thinking why I have to say things twice instead of continually speaking in Yoruba. I started speaking in English. To date, my daughter doesn’t understand Yoruba. I would have loved if I was married to a Yoruba woman in Ireland, that way, my daughter will be able to speak Yoruba fluently. If you don’t speak Yoruba fluently you won’t understand Soyinka’s play at all because the imagery in the language is very important. You need to be able to make the connection.
Does your wife get jealous of the relationship between you and your daughter?
No. I have a very good relationship with my daughter. We all get on very well.
What was growing up like for you?
My growing up was interesting. I was born in Jos. I lost my mom at nine in an auto accident. They were going to the burial of a cousin or so. I was moved to live in Ife with my aunt. There, I was taken to Oyelokun theatre to see ‘The gods are not to blame’. There I decided I was going to become a thespian. I was very good at sports, games and pass my exams in good grades. My aunty and uncle-in-law did what they could as my guardian, but the truth is my childhood was a mixture of lot of happiness and a lot of melancholy. When I was defending myself in court, my wife researched and felt people who lost their mothers at a young age tend to feel they have the duty to change the world. That’s why she connects with me because I’ve been deprived of the most important thing in my life. I watch out for others. So when I went to check the rehearsal venue whether it was alright for people, I am being motherly, and that’s what a mother would have done. The truth of the matter is, a little bit of happiness, melancholy makes you a well-rounded human being.
What sparks creativity in you?
When I am being creative, I get more creative. So when I am directing, I start playwriting. When I start playwriting, I start directing.