This is a review of Femi Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers as directed by Wole Oguntokun. It was staged at the Agip Recital of Muson Centre on October 10 2004. There were two shows for the day. There was a billing for 4:00pm and another for 6:00 pm. this is essentially a review of the second show.
The play was a presentation of Jasonvision. Jasonvision is one of the constituent parts of theatre League Nigeria. The league is a collaboration of some theatre organizations and producers in Nigeria that have produced a number of plays in the country in the last few years. The League’s aim is to surpass he standards of the past and midwife the rebirth of the golden age of theatre in Nigeria. Apart form Jasonvision, other members of the league include: afrotainement Productions, Baneo Theatre, KP Cypress Roots and Tyrone Terrence Productions amongst others. This production is the maiden edition of the Legend series proposed by Jasonvision LTD in which “evergreen” plays by some of Nigeria’s Playwrights will be presented periodically at one of the city’s most prestigious venues. The next edition of the Series is to come up again at the Muson on December 26, 2004.
The ext of the original upon which the performance is based relies on the story of four robbers. At a decisive moment in their career, they encountered an Islamic cleric, Alfa, who decides to help them in their chosen field if they promise not to rob the poor, kill people or betray themselves. They take an oath on this and the old cleric gives them a magic formula divided into four parts with each of them knowing only his or her own part. All must however contribute their part to make the whole formula effective. In making it work, they have to chant and sing. Their victims would then enter an irredeemable trance of dance from which they would not recover until well after the robbers have gone and they have woken from their sleep. They are not to use it on more than three occasions after which they would have made sufficient profit t wasn’t to quit the job. After their second operation however, one of them made away with the loot at gun point. No sooner had he made his escape than he is caught. As he is to be executed, his colleagues take pity on him and in one moment of solidarity commenced their song for the third and last time to demobilize the soldiers who were to do the shooting and the spectators. The soldiers resist the magic this time around and a stalemate is reached until Alfa wads in by asking members of the audience to decide on whose side the pendulum of justice should swing. The play has no definite scripted ending except that the playwrights expect that after an honest voting into the question of which of the sides should carry the day, the play should end in accordance with the wishes of the audience. The play as written is meant as a moral gauge for the audience who is expected to render an impassioned judgment in the grip of the reality of our peculiar social degeneracy.
The foregoing is what Wole Oguntokun had to interpret on stage. He had the following personnel to help realize his vision. Major was played by Williams Benson. Jennifer Osamor was Alhaja. She was also the stage manager. Segun Fadun was Hassan. The director of the play, Wole Oguntokun doubled as Angola. Habeeb Ayodeji played the role of Alfa while Okorie Mike gave a good account of himself as Sergeant. Credit for the lighting design went to Sly Awoniyi.
The first thing that confronts the audience in a theatre is likely to be the setting. At a basic level,, this should be understood as the physical and or spiritual background of the unfolding events. These would include the picture presented of the general scenery. In a play of this sort, with its ingrained mastery of narration, the least one expects is a truthful depiction of the set among other things. The set can itself tell a good story. If it will not match the quality of the original material upon which the director is working, the audience must be able to find a reason for this within the unfolding event of the play. it is not tidy to leave the audience with the impression that the director and his or her crew lack the intellectual depth with which to interpret. it does the efforts put into play productions no good to give the impression that the set design was lazy and sloppy without a good reason to think so.
What Oguntokun presents is different from what the original text prescribes. He has every right to do this but there must be a justification for it beyond the fact that it is convenient. The choice of a banking hall as a substitute for the market situation is an attempt to capture the essence of modern day market situation. It however deprives the plot of the play of the communal after-effect of a robbery. The loss of money kept in a bank is really not the loss of the individual concerned whether as banker or as customer. Replacing Mama Alice, Mama Toun, Mama Uyi, Bintu, Yedunni, Baby, Dora Angelina and the traders and costumer with just bankers and costumers breaks the path of emotional connection between the players and the audience. The stance taken by the bankers each time the robbery takes place is misplaced. Mama Alice and the rest might have been able to connect more with the situation and audience better. In the division of the stage into the banking hall and an open space that sometimes becomes the execution ground and at other times just an ordinary nondescript place is far from tidy. On more than one occasion, some of the robbers have one step in the banking hall and the other leg in the other par t of the stage at a time when the banking hall was not supposed to be in existence as far as the action on the stage at that moment was concerned. The audiences’ readiness to willingly suspend their disbelief is thus stretched too far. In another light, exits and entrances were shoddily handled. When the robbers were to carry out their first operation, they approached the stage from alternate isles. On their second visit, they come in from on single side. On each of the two occasions of robbery, they take their exit exactly trough the same route as the victims they have just robbed! I almost felt they were seeing them off. Given the limitations of the set, there were still two other exit points for the robbers beside their entry point. Points of entry and departure go a long way in showing the relationship between characters and the connections between actions. On the long run, they go a long way in helping to tie up the meaning of the play.
The natural excuse to give for the limitations in construction and use of the stage might be that the Agip Recital Hall of Muson, was not originally constructed for the theatre. This will not be the first time a play would mount that stage. We have seen a number of creative interpretations of settings on that same stage. Some of them were simple. But they did not place a question mark on the ingenuity and creativity of the crew. This production of Once Upon Four Robbers does.
Quite often in the recent past, I have asked myself the question as to what effect is theatre lighting put in our play productions. Largely, the point goes beyond what is seen in Once.... More often than not beyond the illumination, the lighting booth has no story to tell. Even at that, you sometimes find the stage thrown into darkness in the middle of an act. One is not saying this happened in Once..., but the light has no aesthetic function on the play. To emphasise this more, we ask: if a couple of bulbs had been hung over the stage while somebody sits down by the switch, could the “effects” achieved from the lighting booth for Once ... been different? No. At the point when soldiers came to mount the stake for the execution of Hassan, light actually took sometime to come on thereby editing the first few movements of the scene. Lastly on this aspect, I am not sure the blue gel that came on the tableau of the last scene captures the mood. Most importantly, if Alfa was to take a census of opinion of the audience in order for the play to find its end, would it not have been better for the house lights to have come on for better visibility and improved acting? Putting on the house light would have enhanced the demand of honesty that the situation demanded. It would also have brought in the enthusiastic audience of the play into the picture of the play. It is easy to counterpoint this by saying that there was no time for a technical rehearsal. But in the realm of professional theatre, this cannot be a tenable excuse. If your audience is expected to cough out two thousand naira to watch you give excuses, you might be telling them to develop a better attitude to how they spend their money.
One thing you cannot take away from an Osofisan’s play is the devotion to music. If there is any Nigerian playwright who knows the value of songs and music as tone and mood markers, it is Osofisan. Quite often, you find the audience in a good Osofisan play using the songs to recall the theme and movement of plot of the play long after it had been staged. In Oguntokun’s interpretation of Once... it is clear that the place of music was relegate to the level of the obscure. Why this should be so in a play whose major strength lies in the quality and appropriateness of the song can either be because the production crew fails to grasp what defines African theatre or because he lacks the means of conducting a research into the songs of the play. It is more baffling however when “the song of the story teller” and “Eyi lo y’eni” for instance got mumbled through in situations that show a lack of understanding for their import in the cause of playmaking. Alhaja’s “Osegere” also find a reason to get lost in her throat after the first lead. Neither of her co actors nor the audience could understand her occasional burst in the word “Osegere” without the full complement of the remaining lines of the song. That is if Alhaja herself feels the meaning of the song. No. Clearly she did not because the transfer of emotion that should have happened between the players on the stage and the audience was still locked up somewhere in the script of the play undiscovered and untapped. Like many of the other songs, it could have been done without and the play would neither have been worse nor better off than it was. The picture of this singular man on the drum, like an orphan omelet drummer, left behind by the full dundun ensemble is an apt metaphor for the situation of music in this play. One monotonous disservice to rhythm by Kayode Sodunke on, according to the brochure “drums” leaves very little to be admired. Truly, nobody who knew an Osofisan’s piece could have believed that what was presented on that stage in terms of internal rhythm was anything near Osofisan’s. If this was Oguntokun’s attempt to create some identity of his in terms of directorial approach, I think he flunked it because the one singular thing achieved with this was that he left the scenes rather flat and it was very difficult if not impossible to plot a graph of the progression of the mood of the play. Some directors would need a whole orchestra to be able to do this play. While one would want to understand the unsavoury demands of an unwieldy cast, four good voices, which that cast boasts of could have done justice to the songs. No rule says two voices could not have done it to the delight of the audience. What is more? In this age of multimedia experimentation on stage, cost could have been cut, time could have been saved and a more wonderful performance could have guaranteed the audiences’ ultimate satisfaction.
One might have been able to comment more robustly on acting if the actors had shown serious ability to play their various characters with a little more than the average ability they displayed. You can still say that the bankers and their costumers gave a fairly good account of themselves, but that can only be at the level of amateur theatre. If you are charging two thousand naira per seat, you have no right to inflict amateurish on the audience. Something tells one that if Jennifer had been better handled, she might have been the star of the day. Unfortunately, that which Alfa sees in her as Alhaja, well tucked in her personality was lost on the audience. In what was to be a trance-like pose where major had to pour sand on Alhaja to bring her back to life, the entire acting fall far below average. Angola is the main culprit. He is most of the time not in the show. At a point, he was actually sweeping grains of maize off the stage while waiting for one character to finish his line before coming on with his. Nothing stops him from picking a sage business of convenience, but the action has to flow into the general trend of acting. Acting is action and reaction: of characters within and among themselves, of characters and other technicalities of the production and so on. This production has a lot to learn to be able to do justice to the honour of the playwright whose work was on display and also to be able to achieve that noble aim of the League, to reclaim the glory of times past.
All through the performance, there was a character unacknowledged in the production brochure. He kept climbing the stage at will to focus his camera on the players. Next time, his name should appear on the cast list and he should not have been left out of the curtain call.
Oguntokun has shown that he is a prolific theatre enthusiast. In spite of the shortcomings of the play, there is one thing you cannot take away from him. He is a producer with a capital “P”. His enthusiasm and commitment are nothing but commendable. One must however ask him to consider the fact that the text of a stage production relies on the technical as well as the human content to make meaning: Thus the drama of Once... could have been most vividly, aesthetically, and functionally captured with interpretive set design, expressive lighting, appropriate use of music and a more disciplined acting.