theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Biyi Bandele. Say the name out loud. Go on, try it. It has a sound as lyrical, visceral and satisfying as the author’s own writing. “That’s my vocation,” he says to me, using a word that is uttered with abandon by many to impress upon listeners the evidence of an ineluctable calling to write that is spurious. When Biyi says it, there is a straightforward intensity I have not seen for years.
How delightful, then, to be as engaged by the man as by his work, having seen his Brixton Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith Studio a couple of days before our meeting.
The best theatre has no divisions, no catchment area; the best theatre speaks to any human being, not just white, middle class lovers of the Arts. But it’s rare indeed to be entertained by a play that doesn’t immediately lend itself to a particular type of playgoer.
Brixton Stories is one such. Biyi adapted it from his own novel, The Street, and it was originally given flight by students at the Central School of Speech and Drama. You don’t need to be black or from Brixton to find the universal in the particular of one of the most engaging pieces of theatre I have ever seen. In fact, I can’t think of anything in the last ten, twenty years that has grabbed me in quite the way that Brixton Stories has.
“There’s a tentative plan for a tour next year,” says Biyi. I pray this comes to fruition and that the production is sent to every available theatre so that all of us can enjoy the story of Ossie and his daughter Nehushta, and the journey they make through life after the death of his wife – her mother – during childbirth.
The problem, of course, is that the right circumstances need to be in place to bring in the audiences – seldom possible when the thinking behind the choices of producers and bookers can be skewed.
“I think quite often it’s actually the control gatekeepers who say people won’t want to see this, people won’t come in,” says Biyi. “But actually people just want to be entertained.” Quite so.
Indeed, he gives me a prime example of such thinking by telling me what happened with Oroonoko, which he adapted from Aphra Benn’s tale of her travels in Surinam, later Dutch Guiana, and the African prince and slave of the title. Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company during Adrian Noble’s reign – “he was absolutely wonderful and supportive of the show” – the production transferred to the Barbican.
“I remember that during the first few previews there were people within the RSC at the time who saw the show, said it’s wonderful, but listen, if it doesn’t do good business, don’t worry, you know, we think you’ve done a wonderful job. It might play to fairly decent houses. The reviews came out and within two or three weeks the entire run was sold out. It was the same RSC audience.”
Biyi’s background – he was born and brought up in Kafanchan, Nigeria – has been a major influence. “When I try to, I suppose, psycho-analyse myself, I think the first thing is that I was born during a civil war, which I have no memories of but psychologically I feel as if I experienced it.”
The other and “probably the most important” influence was his father, the inspiration behind his latest novel, Burma Boy, set during the Second World War and due to be published next April. “He’s a minor character in it, fictionalised. He died twenty-two years ago so he won’t be giving me his own verdict on it! But yes, very much so. He fought in Burma as did 120,000 other West Africans. Five hundred thousand Africans from the English-speaking part of Africa actually fought in the Second World War. And the book is, I suppose, a tribute to them.”
The emotional fall-out from that war is almost unimaginable; one of the strongest traits to emerge in that and the next generation has been the search for laughter to off-set the trauma of shell-shock, direct or inherited. For my generation as well as Biyi’s – we are a decade apart – childhood has bred in us an understanding of the consequent parental rages and an ability to find humour no matter our surroundings. There is ample evidence of this humour in Biyi’s writing.
“No matter how grim a situation is, there’s always at some point something in it that’s so absurd. And for me it’s always about trying to look for that thing, that epiphany – you just look for that ray of light and it’s always there. Astronomers call themselves blind watchers of the sky because they say everything they’re looking for is there but quite often, until they either have the knowledge or make themselves transparent to them, it doesn’t exist.”
“I’m my father’s son,” he continues, “and my father was a pretty volatile person and I learned at a very, very early age that the world was a slightly unstable place and to survive I always had to have my wits on me.”
Biyi and his siblings also had to contend with the civil war in Nigeria. Although the war started the year he was born – 1967 – and ended when he was three, the after-effects, as he says, were evident everywhere. “You saw all the amputees, all the deranged ex-soldiers on the streets and prostitutes, women who lost their husbands. About a million people died in that war. And the landscape was just unstable.”
Nevertheless, his growing up was far from bleak. “I actually had a happy childhood. It might be a weird thing to say but my dad, when he wasn’t full of rage, was the funniest person you could be around. He had this what the French call joie de vivre, I mean he really did. He was a voracious reader and a great raconteur and I would just listen to him for hours. I remember sitting with him and with my brothers listening to him tell stories and I would look round and it’s hours later and my brothers have slipped out of the room and I’m the only one still there!”
Biyi also has his father to thank for introducing him to the written word for he first took his son to the local library when he was six years old. “I just fell in love with books and so I started reading a lot, taking three or four books, finishing them, going back for more, and then I started writing. I just started imitating those writers I’d read and one day in school the teacher asked every one of us what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said I wanted to be a writer. By the time I was twelve my first short story was published in the local newspaper. I took it in and handed it to them and said I’d been sent to drop it off by my father. It was called The Pickpocket.”
Biyi’s love of words is transparent, without his dialogue ever sounding verbose; no words are used for their own sake, as is sometimes the case with writers whose passion gets the better of them. The word ‘tautological’ may be in my dictionary but it’s nowhere to be found in Biyi’s. Even in what one might call ‘dream’ sequences, Biyi’s language is grounded in reality, yet gloriously euphonious.
My favourite scene in Brixton Stories has to be the one involving the value of words. It is set in a market where one stall-holder has words for sale – on special offer. Just watch the face of the woman who walks away with three-for-nothing. Bliss!
Now living in the capital – “I love London, I really do” – Biyi’s original journey to the UK came about through winning a playwriting competition run by the National Student Drama Trust. He was in his first year at university studying for a degree in drama and had written a play called Rain when he saw a flyer from the British Council on the notice board and entered the play.
“About three years later, in my third year, someone came up to me and said congratulations. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You know. It’s been announced on the BBC World Service that you won this award.’ And I’d had no idea.”
He was invited over here for a rehearsed reading of Rain in Scarborough where the National Student Drama Festival is held and made every second count. “I arrived here in 1990, in the Spring, with a copy of a manuscript of a novel I’d written before I went to university. I made several photocopies of it and sent it off to several publishers and within two weeks, three weeks, it was accepted for publication by two publishers, and I was offered a job with a weekly African newspaper in Kilburn as their Arts Editor.”
And he stayed over here. “I came here on a visitor’s visa so the weekly publication sent my passport to the Home Office and said we’re offering him a job and I got a letter from Heinemann who were publishing the novel and several months later the passport came back with a permit. So I’ve been a fortunate traveller.” And we the fortunate beneficiaries.
Biyi went on to be Resident Dramatist with the Talawa Theatre Company from 1993 to 1994 and Writer-in-Residence at the National Theatre studio in 1995. He writes for television and radio as well as the stage, publishes fiction and poetry and is not short of critical acclaim. He won an LWT Plays on Stage award for Resurrections and was shortlisted for the 3rd Meyer-Whitworth Award in 1993 for Marching for Fausa, commissioned by the Royal Court.
Brixton Stories marked Biyi’s directing début but he has always been very much involved in the staging process. “With every one of my previous plays that have been produced I’ve spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room and so it wasn’t that difficult. What was tricky about it was managing the logistics – every department looks up to you, you have to make decisions and you have to live by them and that’s a very stressful part of it.”
Tricky and stressful or not, he finds directing easy “compared to sitting staring at a blank piece of paper”, and he is pleased with the result. “Oh yes, I’m happy with the play. I come to see it every night. If I wasn’t happy with it, I wouldn’t!” Biyi’s laughter is infectious.
“I had a really good cast and they responded very well to directing. They’d do things one way and I’d say can we try it this other way, you know. With three of them I’d actually done a student production of this at Central. But Geoff [Aymer], who plays Ossie the father, I didn’t know at all. I didn’t know his work, I’d never seen him on the stage. He’s great.” He is indeed.
And so is recent Central graduate Cush Jumbo who plays Ossie’s daughter, Nehushta, and is surely destined for a brilliant career. “She’s a very talented actress,” Biyi affirms.
If I had any quibbles about the night I saw the play, it was the over-playing that came from her fellow graduates, Sheri-An Davis and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. This turns out, as I had suspected, to be a question of inexperience.
“What happened that night,” Biyi recounts, “was that it was the first night during the run when the place wasn’t completely full and that just completely threw them. It’s inexperience. I had a talk with them afterwards. I said, ‘Look, there will be times when you’re playing to three people – you have to appreciate it, you know’.”
But the piece is so powerful and Aymer and Jumbo so gifted at mining the text for every delicate nuance, and eliciting laughter and tears along the way, that nothing spoils the production overall. Jo Bacon, who saw it with a full house, puts it best in her review: ‘I think it is the nearest experience I have had in the theatre to being absorbed in the drama and yet still able to extract the literary beauty, precision of language and reflection that a novel can offer’.
And it wasn’t just the actors who excelled themselves. Jeremy Walker’s lighting and Adam Doran’s sound, along with the simplest of sets by Charlie Cridlan, provided a seamless whole, whether we were in a ‘prison’, the bustling streets of Brixton or a tiny theatre space above a pub.
Has the experience given Biyi a taste for directing the plays of others?
“Right now, just my own stuff. But I’ve got a play that’s going to be on at the Young Vic – what they’re advertising as a new translation of a play by Brecht [Señora Carrar’s Rifles]. And Paul Hunter from Told by an Idiot is directing that and I’ve got something else, a children’s play that I’m doing for the Theatre Centre. It’s going to be on at the Unicorn. And those two plays and one or two other things next year are being directed by other people – I’m quite happy for that. Once in a while I’ll probably want to direct.”
As long as Biyi Bandele keeps writing, I’m happy.
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on 05-10-06
Update: 22 June 2014: Biyi’s film, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Golden Dhow at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) 2014 last night.
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