Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, now captured on stage by Helen Iskander, blends the twin dimensions with poise and beauty.
When English pop band The Police sang about Spirits in the Material World, little could they have guessed that a novel out of West Africa would harness that vision and win the Booker Prize in the process. But Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, now captured on stage by Helen Iskander, blends the twin dimensions with poise and beauty.
Iskander set herself a mammoth task of translating the essence of the epic novel into a play, but she has accomplished it superbly.
Under her finely-attuned eye for fantasy transplanted into, and coexisting with, the real world, Okri’s magical-realist fable is respectfully handled and remains a cogent affirmation of life and hope.
Some call it animist realism, but whatever it is, this ethereal sensibility is an effective way of telling a tale – in the right hands, of course.
The central character is Azaro (a play on the biblical Lazaro, or Lazarus, who rose from the dead), an abiku or spirit child who exists in the realm between the living and the dead.
In Yoruba tradition, several layers of existence exist simultaneously, separated only by a thin membrane.
Out of affection for his earthly parents but against the natural order, Azaro chooses to stay in the land of the living, which is also the land of suffering, torment and hunger.
However, he is constantly tempted back to the alluring playground of the spirit world, filled with fun, laughter and feasting.
Often, his mind is invaded by unsettling visions of the future.
We are confronted by the parallel worlds that Azaro wends in and out of: his terra firma world comprises the stark reality of subsistence living in a modest hut in a Nigerian village, while the spirit world is peopled by fantastical creatures and wraiths that transcend the bounds of the imagination.
Thanks to Lisa Younger’s styling and puppetry, this subtropical dreamworld evokes The Dark Crystal meets Alice in Wonderland in Africa.
These spirit beings could have been grotesque and scary, but here they are seldom threatening, even as they try to lure Azaro back to the realm where they believe he belongs.
As the soft strains of Fly Away, Butterfly waft through the theatre, we witness Azaro returning from the spirit world to comfort his parents. Clad in oversized clothes as if to suggest his otherworldly wisdom, this child brings joy and light into his parents’ bleak world.
We do not have the name of the child actor to hand, but this little tyke is nothing short of marvellous: intuitive, sensitive, supremely comfortable on stage and darn cute without being precocious. Think Webster and Gary Coleman but minus the “brat” factor.
In their tiny house set to the side of the stage, Azaro’s mother and father battle the odds, from hunger to an insistent landlord.
His dad is an idealistic dreamer; his mom a hawker who is becoming disillusioned with her husband’s constant promises of “tomorrow, tomorrow” that never materialise.
Madame Koto, who runs a local bar, enlists Azaro’s services to bring good fortune, but soon her greed overtakes her as she succumbs to the allure of money thrown at her by corrupt politicians. Azaro’s duty is nudge the living into looking at the world through new eyes, embracing the road ahead and setting dreams into action.
The company, which includes actors Lindiwe Matshikiza and James Cuningham, works hard weaving between characters and critters, while Mncedisi Shabangu as the gentle giant of a father once again confirms why he is seen as one of the foremost South African actors of his generation.
The Famished Road could have been unstageable, but Fresco Theatre has given birth to a child that effectively conjures a phantasmagorical aesthetic, while passing subtle critiques on African social and political realities.
It is exquisitely realised and is likely to touch you to the core.
More than most other productions, this work steeped in mythology and miracles can truly – and literally – be dubbed a triumph of the human spirit.
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