Review: FELA! at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 20 July - 28 August 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 29 July 2011

FELA! 20 July - 28 August 2011, Sadler's Wells. Photo: Monique Carboni

The summer season invariably brings a scattering of musicals that have a strong dance emphasis and this year’s offering from Sadler’s Wells is to revitalise Fela!, an account of the life and times of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, which played at the National Theatre to great acclaim late last year. As a crossover show, it was notable that the home of dance attracted several drama critics for this event and, to be fair, although the choreography comes from legendary American dance maker Bill T. Jones, the dance was no more than a robust supporting ingredient.

Kuti was a prolific composer, singer, musician and bandleader whose output extended to 47 albums in his lifetime. He was also a human rights activist (although by contradiction he was unquestionably a lifelong misogynist) and a political agitator. Kuti was greatly influenced by the American Black Power movement and openly criticised the military Dictatorships that ruled Nigeria through the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. These parallel strands of Kuti’s life dominate the storyline of Fela!, beginning with his musical odyssey (and its sundry references to Sinatra, The Beatles, Bob Marley, highlife, jazz and funk) before morphing into the political journey from maverick commentator to Presidential candidate. The collision of these two worlds causes an abrupt mood swing midway through the second act where we move from audience members having been encouraged to get up and swing their hips and thrust their crotches back and forth; along a meandering road of giant spliffs, “endless groove” and funky jazz; to a sudden roll call of men and women who were abused, tortured and killed in the military raid on Kuti’s Kalakuta compound in 1978. One thousand soldiers razed it to the ground in response to his album Zombie (which was an overt satirical attack on the Nigerian army); his elderly mother was thrown from a second storey window sustaining injuries from which she later died; and Kuti was severely beaten. This explosive change from happy play to grief-stricken calamity caught many in the audience on the hop: a man sitting behind me thought that the story of one of Kuti’s band being dragged downstairs by his testicles was hilarious!

The main strength of Fela! lies in the dominating charisma of Sahr Ngaujah in the title role – a singing, acting, saxophone-playing tour de force. He was well supported by outstanding musicians who were on duty for some time before the show starts, warming the audience up as if we really were visiting Kuti’s Afrika Shrine nightclub; and the nine Amazonian “Queens”- the main dance corps – representing one third of Kuti’s 27 wives (allegedly he married them all on the same day but only kept 12 of them in residence, by rotation, at any one time). The show also benefited from powerful set and lighting designs, respectively by Marina Draghici and Robert Wierzel, providing a framework for Peter Nigrini‘s video projections that brought the essence of ’70s Lagos into Sadler’s Wells, through images of graffiti, press cuttings, photographs and newsreel film (some of which was most certainly not fit for a queasy stomach).

There was a certain disjointedness between some scenes and the latter part of the final act became laboured, almost over-burdened by the strength of the political message, which jarred against the buoyancy of the bohemian lifestyle characterising the commune that Kuti created. It was hard to believe in the political firebrand when the character was portrayed as so permanently laid back that he could eat his meals from the ceiling. But, for me – the dance critic – the biggest disappointment lay in the choreography. It seemed so unoriginal, so derivative of any rudimentary understanding of African dance: lots of bum-shaking and thigh-wobbling with feet and knees half turned-out and a few tricks with splits. The nine “Queens” were certainly effective at all this shimmying and some were definitely eye-catching (I loved the girl with the grey Mohican and the one-legged trouser) but, often, I caught myself thinking that the movement seemed like a succession of tribal dances from a 1930s Tarzan film and that disappointed me.
By mixing the soul of modern African music with an insight into Nigeria’s rush from colonialism to military dictatorship – and showing how black power was equally relevant to Africa as the USA in the ’60s and ’70s – Fela! captures the contradictions of modern Africa in the life of one very contrary man. Despite my reservations, the towering central performance from Ngaujah is easily the highlight of the show and well worth seeing for its own sake.

*Fela! *continues at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August **”more details/booking“:http://www.sadlerswells.com/show/Fela

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