Review – Fela! – National Theatre – and comments on rude staff

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While I didn’t know much about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti before going to last night’s preview performance at the National Theatre, I did know enough to be excited that this show was coming to London. It had been well received in New York – going from the 37 Arts theater (September 2008) to the Eugene O’Neill (November 2009) – and is still carrying on (though box office has slowed since the principles decamped to, er, England). And while I’m not any kind of expert on Fela’s music, I’d heard lots of it thanks to years of listening to the Best Ambiance show on KEXP. My tiny mental biography – African singer who’d paid a heavy price for his very political music – made me think that hearing his life story would make for a good night at the theater. When member presale started at the NT, I went ahead and grabbed a single seat for this show (on the night some friends were going), figuring this would be enough of an event to reward me for the grief of attending essentially alone: theater is an social activity for me, an evening to share with others, but if this was the best I could manage for a show that sounded so good, I was not going to say no: later in the run I wouldn’t even be able to afford a seat.

I entered into an Olivier theater that had been transformed in the most attractive way (credits to Marina Draghici, I’m sure) a real “environment” – so different from the many times it had just been an overly large box with a set dropped on top. We were in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1978, for what was to be Fela’s last concert at his Shrine music hall. The walls were covered with posters of people from the black power movement; Yoruba statues; banners with political slogans; and a hovering image of Fela’s mom, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. The stage had an extension poking into the audience so most of the first two rows were “inside” of an arc upon which people would later dance, run, and (I would gueess) leave them fearing for their lives. Me, I was in the last “normal” row, P, sat in front of row R, which was half-full of people with notebooks. The technical staff; well, it was a preview, so not unexpected.

I did not expect that this situation would wind up ruining my night out. For the first twenty minutes, the lot of them kept up conversations in what I would consider an “outside” voice – not whispers, but full volume conversations about every damned thing happening on stage as if they were still in a rehearsal with nary a paying customer in sight. (Be advised my preview ticket was £30, so it’s not like I was there for a giveaway.) Listening to the lyrics of Fela’s music, as well as to the speeches he (as represented by Sahr Gnaujah) gave, was critical to understanding this show: and the grammar, syntax, and rythmns of the English used were very non-standard and required a lot of attention to get at the 100% I wanted. Even though the lyrics were displayed on a screen at the back of the set, the endless chatter was successfully cancelling out a lot of the words. I finally turned to my left and asked if the pair of men could please keep it down: they said, “Ooh, sorry!” and immediately dropped the level. (I later foudn this was the projection team, likely Peter Nigrini and another.)

However, an hour went by and the three women to my right and rear did NOT quiet down and were, basically, treating me to the pleasure of listening to them work through their notes ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE SHOW where was I was hoping to do was actually pay attention to what was happening on stage. There was a lot going on: fantastic music; wild dancing (although I felt some of the women looked more like they were doing choreographed moves rather than the improv that I am used to seeing in African dance, especially when in a dancer/drummer situation); a story that made Hair look like a light comedy for theater-goers expecting a wee bit of naughty to go with hummable tunes. I finally gave up on anyone else and asked, “Can you please talk more quietly?”

The response of one of the three women, sneering: “I am working.”

Oh my, oh me, did I INTERRUPT someone who was WORKING during a show? Did I, as a person who had PAID to come to a show, want to enjoy my experience? Was it RUDE for me to ask for her to conduct her conversation as if there was an AUDIENCE in the room? Had I asked her to do something she was physically incabable of doing?

Or was she just incredibly rude with an inflated sense of self importance and a complete lack of perspective on what constitutes proper behavior in a theater, or, possibly, around human beings?

At the interval I tried to get the name of this paragon of good technical staff: supposedly it was Anna Rotherburger (spelling uncertain), though I could not find her on the cast list. She was sitting next to Marina Draghici herself – I was able to find a picture of her online and she attempted to soothe me as I asked the sneering woman to identify herself, and it was Marina who said her name was what I’ve written here. Possibly it was actually Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hil or Deputy Producction Manager Anna Anderson, though I’m loathe to blame an innocent party: she spoke with an English accent. Whoever she is, she should be banished to a light booth and permanently banned from being present at any performance at which the public is in attendance. I think she should be horsewhipped for rudeness. Deliver her unto me and I’ll make sure she gets what she deserves. Seriously, it’s bad enough to go to performances with rude audience members, who will usually respond when asked to keep it down; but for a professional staff member to be so incredibly hostile to a polite request to conduct her work sotto voce is just beyond the pale. She ruined the show for me and made the National look bad. Anna, whoever you are, you owe me an apology, and you need to go to a basic manners class.

Now, house manager Steve responded to this by moving me to row G; but my socialization opportunity over the interval was ruined, as had been the entire first act. And, really, I wasn’t able to get my brain in the right space for act two either. I want to say something about the show, because I thought it was really good. I was very interested in how Fela moved from basically a fanboy musician with a taste for the ladies to a man who was fearless in discussing the corrupt state of his nation publicly, as entertainment, speaking the truth to the people; the section on his exposure to American culture and the Black Power movement was especially enlightening (and gave his life some visceral historic context). I was really sucked up into the “dream ballet,” when he attempted to summon and then talk to his mother’s spirit amidst a swirl of glowing white costumes and masks with faces that touched upon deep terrors.

But what really hit me about this musical about a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing singer and sax player wasn’t his unadmirable lifestyle (who knows if it were played up or down on stage!), it was just how much what he was doing mattered. I have to go back to Hair to make the comparison properly. Hair, to me, was a pretty show with pretty songs about pretty, selfish kids who just hated that people wanted them to “fit in” instead of wear funny clothes and abandon social standards of personal hygiene. Their punishment: few possessions; getting kicked out of the house; unexpected parenthood; bad trips. Fela! is about a people who wanted to live in safety, to have food for their families, to have access to clean water, to see the money washing around the country turned to do something for the people of the country instead of just going to the army and the politicians. Their punishment: rape (both genders); torture; imprisonment on false charges; murder (made most clear by the movies shown on the sides of the stage). Standing up the the government meant you could be pulled into prison without cause: your house could be burnt down; your extended family glassed, gassed, violated, and murdered by police forces. It’s a really different world from the pretty, safe New York of 1966: and it’s the same world that’s out there right now while we sit around worring that we might have our cell phone picked from our pockets or that British Gas might overcharge us for our heating bills. Fela put his life – and his family – on the line shining a light on the horrible truth of daily existence in Nigeria; he made music that people could dance to and enjoy because, well, it “had a beat and you could dance to it” but also, I think, that had the incredible power of saying, in no unclear terms, what was going on in his country. Like the Trickster, he yanked the beard of authority, and authority damn well yanked right back, and he paid a price, though not as much as some.

This feeling of relevance to now is what charges this musical with so much power. We all still live in a world where the gap between first world and third world living can be expressed just as much in justice as it can be in money. The privileges we enjoy are far deeper than easy access to clothing and clean water; the shame is that it is more than 30 years later and the situation for so many people is still so poor. Governments around the world still work hard to shut down those who speak the truth to power; the fact that even one man could do so for so long is both inspiring and chastening. Surely we should demand more. And somewhere, somehow, we need another Fela.

AHEM. Yes, anyway: I enjoyed this show, and I think it’s one of the most energizing things to hit the National in the last six years.

(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on November 9th, 2010. Official opening night is January 16th, but with the New York star, Sahr Ngaujah in place, there’s no need to wait for fussy technical details to get ironed to perfection before you go see this show – provided you don’t sit in row P of the stalls.)

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One Response to “Review – Fela! – National Theatre – and comments on rude staff”

  1. On the value of Bloggers « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] with the theaters, we are far freer to say what we think than print reviewers are – God knows theatrical staff and even art principles feel no reason to refrain from being rude to us, since we’re merely […]

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