“It’s not just about Fela, it’s about you”
FELA! is the annoyingly capitalised and punctuated show that enters the world of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and through a blend of dance, theatre and music, it takes a highly atmospheric journey through a crucial part of his life and it arrives at the National Theatre on the back of a much-lauded run on Broadway. The book is by Jim Lewis and Bill T Jones, the latter of whom is also the choreographer, but it uses the music and lyrics of Kuti’s own Afrobeat style to celebrate his life with some additional lyrics by Jim Lewis and music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to pull it altogether into this production. This is a review of a preview so all usual caveats apply and ticket prices for this show really are not cheap, booking this performance meant I got a £44 seat for £24.50 and I make no apologies for that.
The show is set in the summer of 1978 in Lagos, the then capital, at the Shrine, Kuti’s personal nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he has fought against both as a lyricist and an activist. Fela is giving one last concert before leaving the country due to the stresses of living under this regime, the opportunities offered to him elsewhere as a musician of increasing renown and as a grieving son, his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti a noted activist herself having been thrown to her death in an attack on their premises six months previously.
It doesn’t so much start as slide into action. The amazing 12 man band (who sound fabulous throughout) are playing from the moment the doors open in the theatre and slowly dancers appear from the wings and the aisles, chatting with audience members, with themselves, throwing shapes and warming up for a good ten minutes before anything actually happens. It is a neat introduction into what becomes a frenetic evening of sensory overload.
Sahr Ngaujah, the sole import from the Broadway production and the man who originated the role, is breathtakingly good as the anarchic leader. Rarely off-stage, he serves as both MC and main act in this concert, swaggering and wise-cracking his way through his fondness for women and marijuana and is equally at home explaining the development of his Afrobeat sound with the help of the band or turning his excoriating gaze on the corruption endemic in so many positions of authority. It is an imperious performance of such confidence and relentless energy, when he isn’t singing or dancing he’s playing the trumpet or saxophone, that really holds the show together even when the structure begins to disintegrate. The cynical part of me is pretty sure that the sax playing is mimed and the ad-libbing with the audience about sharing a joint was scripted but the overall delivery is so committed that it doesn’t really matter.
In an attempt to broaden the show and assumably to give Ngaujah a break, some songs are performed by two of the key female characters in Fela’s life. Paulette Ivory as the strident and seductive Sandra Iszadore who raises his Black consciousness and introduces him to Marx was enjoyable to watch and listen to, but Melanie Marshall as his mother, Funmilayo, is just stunning. An otherworldly figure who reappears throughout whether as a personal ghost or a spirit presence for all, her striking voice is perfectly suited to someone who may or may not be a tribal goddess and her delivery of Rain is just stunning.
But set against these individual performances is an ensemble of remarkable talent who portray Kuti’s army of followers and deliver some incredible choreography. Jones has created a fusion of traditional African movement with a more contemporary sensibility that really works so there’s lots of tribal influences in much of the dancing but elements of ballet and tap and more stylised movements woven in alongside plenty of opportunities for solo virtuoso performances and a nicely evocative routine to Kere Kay which ends both acts with its Black Power salute.
The atmosphere in the Olivier auditorium has been transformed not only by the music but by Marina Draghici’s design and dressed with graffiti, brightly coloured portraits, paintings and collages hanging from every available inch of wall space to try and evoke the sense of a Lagos club. The theatre is just too big for this to be truly convincing but by building a walkway into the stalls and mounting platforms up in front of the circle and constantly using the aisles, there is a real feeling of a different use of this space: indeed I have never been so close to a woman’s shaking bottom for so long in my life, if you are close up then the action really is literally in your face. Multimedia aspects are also incorporated with lyrics being projected, archival footage being played and live video being relayed at various times, possibly a little too much as the combined effect is sometimes overwhelming with so many elements demanding the attention.
Watching people who think they can dance shake their booty is an unfortunately cringe-worthy sight no matter where it is and in the attempts to redefine the theatrical experience here, this lead to one of the weakest elements of the show for me. The audience at the National Theatre, and particularly in early performances in a run at the Olivier, is for better or for worse generally rather skewed to the white, middle-class Home Counties crowd and so despite this being a more diverse set of spectators than usual, the audience participation sections were somewhat lacklustre. In his exhortations to get the audience to participate in call and response chants, Ngaujah worked hard but there’s too many of them and the repeated requests for more volume wear thin incredibly quickly. I think this occurs too early in the show to be truly effective: the audience (or this particular audience at least) needed time to warm up to this style of presentation in order to become more forthcoming. Indeed, when they are asked to stand and learn to the dance the ‘Clock’ later on, i.e. telling the time with one’s posterior, there was slightly more enthusiasm although watching people ‘feel the rhythm’ left me feeling more embarrassed for them than anything. Perhaps this is just indicative of my own proclivities as an NT regular (although I should stress I am a Northerner by birth) but as in real life, I like a bit more genuine interaction before being asked to dance…
And that leads me to the main problem that I had with the show. In blurring the lines between so many of the elements here, it has resulted in a lack of focus, a real reason to keep the show going. It flits between concert performance, biography, dream sequences and historical reportage amongst others and as such has little dramatic imperative. There’s not enough demonstration of the harshness of life, of the reason for both of the Kutis’ activism to show why they’d risk their lives this way. Does this matter, well part of me thought not as the exuberance of the production is so winning but the truth is it does get a bit repetitive and the lack of depth lead me dangerously close to becoming uninvolved at times.
The worst offender for me though was the slippage into hagiography. In using creative license to portray this story, in cherry-picking the biographical elements showcased here, FELA! chooses to avoid the truth of his attitude towards women (we see him marrying his 27 dancers but not the divorce that followed) but crucially it ignores the reality of his death from complications due to AIDS. A decision that is hard to swallow at the best of times, but when the spirit of those who have passed away from HIV and AIDS has been invoked in the beautifully moving final scene with its collection of coffins, I found it hard to accept. What Kuti endured and fought for in the political spectrum is incredible and rightly celebrated here but in ignoring this personal and social context which connects to one of the most horrifying and devastating epidemics in the world and something which is affecting Africa just as much as the corruption he battled, it left something of a sour taste.
Reading this review back it looks like I’m trying to talk myself out of liking FELA! but that isn’t really the case. Yes, I feel that there isn’t enough of the gritty reality to highlight the real import of his message and biographically it is too airbrushed, but it is by and large a highly enjoyable experience. Suffused with an energy that something quite different to most large-scale musicals currently on in London and an astonishingly committed and cohesive ensemble who are jaw-droppingly good with a whirlwind central performance that adds up to something of a must-see: it is a brilliant demonstration of the power of song and dance to really enrich theatrical expression when words just aren’t enough.