The Duchess of Malfi Phase 1 - ‘Iyalode of Eti’ - The Creative Journey.

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A good idea will keep you awake during the morning, but a great idea will keep you awake during the night.
Marilyn vos Savant

Having good ideas is common currency for many of us in the creative industries. Most of them come to nothing, but sometimes the idea to create something becomes so strong you’re compelled to do something about it.

The Duchess of Malfi idea started out of a final year project I did at university directing sections of the play in my second year- Introduction to Directing Theatre. This play, the finest Jacobean drama outside the Shakespeare canon, is not only a gem of poetry and wit, but also a meditation on the vanity of public life and the inevitability of death. The satiric prose is filled with such poetic imagery and the subtle verse is so sharp in its commentary that each individual use of language complements all the others. I was surprised to find in such a merciless play so much goodness and such tender love scenes. Perhaps that is part of the reason why, in spite of the absurdities of the plot and the decadent horror of many of its incidents, this play left me with a sweet feeling of sadness and an increased reverence for struggling humanity. It resonated so much with my own culture that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I discussed the idea with some of my peers and other artists. They were really positive and this gave me the confidence to keep going. Even when my first Arts Council application was rejected, I knew I had to keep banging my head against that door until it opens.

I identified quite early on that any success in transposing the play to Nigeria will mean finding a writer who is conversant with the world and is willing to work closely with me to realise my vision of the play.

To make this dream a reality requires money. Applying for funding is not one for the faint hearted.  It’s a difficult, time consuming and stressful process, which, to be honest, can take some of the energy and enthusiasm out of the project itself. On the plus side, it forces a level of introspection and planning that probably wouldn’t happen in any other circumstance.

I wouldn’t say that I am an African theatre practitioner. I have directed different types of theatre including, devised, street theatre, theatre of the absurd and physical theatre. However, I could sense a gap in the market. Africans living in the Diaspora are keen and hungry for cultural content and desire a vehicle of identification with Africa. This audience particularly enjoys the envisaged multi-disciplinary approach to this work. They are desperate for things they can be proud of.  As our Musical director Juwon Ogungbe rightly pointed out “African period dramas have been largely absent from the London (and by extension, UK) stages for a considerable amount of time, mainly due to the diminished energy emanating from companies such as Collective Artistes, Badejo Arts and others. Most UK African based theatre productions in recent times have tended to focus on the colonial and post colonial eras. It has been exciting engaging creatively with a new play that is addressing themes relevant to the values of our forbears”.

On the 18th and 20th of August, we held workshops that featured in the ‘Youth Takeover Festival’ at Rich Mix- London. The workshop was also life streamed.

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The workshop explored the following:

The questions every writer should ask themselves when they choose adaptation material.

Selecting material suitable for adaptation

The different types of adaptation

How the process of an adaptation differs from that of an original playwriting process

Acquiring the rights for what you wish to adapt and the legality, royalty and credit issues of an adaptation of work by another person

How to stay faithful to the source while creating something new.

We were interested in the reasons people had for attending the workshops and their expectations. Quite a number of people expected the workshops to be intimidating. They were pleasantly surprised to find the workshop a safe place full of creatives who, while talented and passionate, also had their vulnerabilities. This enabled everybody to come out of their respective shells and share their ideas.

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Debo Oluwatuminu used his experience of adapting the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ into ‘Iyalode of Eti’ as a concrete example of the adaptation process. One participant said that the workshop “demystified the adaptation process and the writer, making the process accessible to aspiring writers”.

A participant described the workshop as a “spiritual experience”. Debo did not stick to teaching about the formalities of structure within texts. He acknowledged the importance of discipline. Lessons like not waiting for inspiration but going out and fighting for it – even if you make a lot of mistakes, or create a lot of “bad writing” along the way were vital. 

We were pleased to hear that young people that initially had no ideas for adaptations left inspired and ready to work on something specific.

Writing Workshop Feedback

Isabel Brodie -‘Today was incredibly interesting and helpful to me as a writer. The workshop went into more depth and covered more topics than I expected. I left with a burning itch to go home and work and tell stories which can only be a good thing’.

Rex Okere-‘ I found the session really useful as it thought me a lot about how classic stories should be adapted to either stage plays or screen plays. This also gave me an insight into dimensions in which well known adapted stage plays or screen plays have been taken into’.

Sarah Agah- ‘Today I learned to actually write! I’ve been waiting for the muse. Debo inspired me to be brave!’

Amaka Ejizu -‘I learned to take myself out of my comfort zone and not censor myself’.

Cynthia Otolorin-This session was extremely helpful in terms of the steps taken in the beginning stages of writing. I also learned the importance of fuelling oneself with enough research content to the point of comfort ability before starting a project’.

 Play Exploration Workshop

On 7 September, we started a one week ensemble based collaborative process involving the writer, eight professional actors, six singers/dancers, a movement director, a music composer, stage manager, sound designer, lighting designer, Assistant Director, Two trainee Directors and a percussionist.

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During the process, major questions and choices were interrogated and raised about casting, staging, the text, playing length, performance aesthetic, rehearsal methodology, speaking to the audience, the comedic in a tragedy, costumes, choreography, presentation, use of entrances and exits, clarity of plot, staging and so on. Important question was raised. What constitutes Contemporary African Theatre? 

I started with a play of one hundred and thirty seven pages and ended up with a workshop version trimmed to Fifty four pages. There were many unknowns with this project and many questions remain unanswered and unexplored during this development phase of the project. Working out what key elements of the story are there, what’s missing, what needs to be taken away and what needs to be added. It’s a creative adventure in itself…

It’s been an exhilarating experience having other artists and collaborators in the rehearsal room. Trying to keep our wits about us, so that we are ready to go in different directions and try different things, so that we can ask “What if…” and run with it for a while.

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We had the opportunity to explore the language of the play and varying ways of telling the story. I wanted a playing ground where actors are able to experiment and find ways of making what is ultimately a very sad story an enjoyable and entertaining piece of theatre.

It was very useful to have live music with us in the rehearsal room. I would have loved to have had the time to integrate music more from the outset of the initial idea. It would have been great to have had the opportunity think more about the tempo and rhythm and be able to work with the composer and the ensemble to create scenes and characters that fit the mood that the songs create.

In hindsight it would have been useful to have a longer period for the workshop to explore the play freely without the pressure of creating a piece of finished work. This would have meant that we could take risks in the work we created, and the outcomes of the research been more fruitful and creative. The experience gave me an insight into ways of developing my working methods as a company, as well as new material.

The week felt rushed with pressure to have something solid to share with a paying audience at the end of the week. Before the week started, we had spent the months before researching the world of the play and collating factual and visual information about the world of the play. We used all of this as inspiration to propel us into the world of the play.

The R&D was full of surprise and delight! The most surprising and enjoyable part were watching the actors bringing the play to life. It was exciting to see characters come to life; we really enjoyed sharing the play with the audience. Through these sharings we discovered that the play appeals to both adults and children.

The process also afforded the writer the opportunity to learn enough from the process about what to do in making the full text more concise.


Play workshop Exploration Feedback

Maddie Appiah- Actor

‘I had an incredible time working on this project!  I had the opportunity to work with some very experienced artists and African theatre practitioners’.

Juwon Ogungbe- Music director and Composer

‘You had a good atmosphere in the rehearsal rooms and there was a certain amount of skills sharing and passing on of practices from practitioners of various age groups that doesn't happen enough in UK Black Theatre nowadays.

 Patrice Naiambana- Actor

‘I was offered a professional development opportunity - to practice African Theatre which is extremely rare in the UK. I learnt a something about Yoruba customs and culture.  I learnt a lot from watching the other actors approach their roles. I had only recently come out of hospital and not been in an ensemble context for 3 years, so was ring rusty. This intense workshop provided essential practice. I was also able to observe from within the process a similar approach to intensely prepared sharings which I have been facilitating for the last 8 years. It was refreshing to experience being directed in front of the camera so to speak, understanding better how actors engage with Directors. I learnt a physical and rhythmic strategy to learning an unfamiliar language. I appreciated the collaborative spirit, the freedom to explore and the intensity of a short period of exploration’.

Funke Adeleke- Singer and dancer

‘I enjoyed the process thoroughly from audition stage to rehearsals and the workshop. The organisation was thorough, however I would have preferred a two weeks rehearsal period as opposed to one week. I feel two weeks would have produced a much clearer visual for the cast as well as the production team especially wardrobe. Working with you came at a significant time for me as I knew I would be starting courses for Writing for Theatre and Performance Classes at Clean Break this month. I started this week and I am enjoying being in an all women only environment. I know I have a very feminist belief so I enjoy working with women who are empowering to other women, who inspire other women and still have pride in their appearance. All of which you embody and epitomise. As an African woman in the Diaspora, this is extra challenging, so I was so glad to be in a surrounding with my sisters before actually immersing myself into the course’

We had two sold out performances of Iyalode of Eti at Richmix on 12 September and Arcola Theatre on 13 September. There is no doubt whatsoever that our appreciation of the play and our ability to go forward has been encouraged by the feedback of the audience. 


Audience Feedback

‘It was a great introduction to African theatre. It made me keen to find out more about it’
‘Come and experience a visceral and compelling show’
‘Vibrant, intelligent, enjoyable. Amazing achievement after one week’
‘I would definitely recommend it. It has something for everyone’
‘Deep, Ethically rich. Poetic and Humorous’ 
‘Go and see it and learn something about Yoruba’
‘Great story and insight into Nigerian culture and Mythology’
‘It is so good to see Nigerian theatre. British theatre needs more of this. I think a longer time to prepare will enable the actors to bring out the unique Yoruba quality to the production more’
‘Please keep this on. We need to see more of this type of play’
‘Epic story telling. Need for simplicity and clarity in characters and background of who’s and why’s’
‘Would Love to see the full production’
‘Fantastic and powerful production’
‘What a great achievement by creative director Moji Kareem and her excellent cast in transcribing the Duchess of Malfi so authentically and convincingly into pre-colonial Yorubaland - I actually preferred it to the recent Globe version. Hopefully it will soon get a long extended theatrical run.’
‘I think Iyalode of Eti is intelligently yet sensitively written and a powerful reflection of human stories. The effective and creative use of the stage area by the passionate and talented cast was in tune with the inspired directing. The production is heartfelt, thought provoking and professional in its execution. Deserves support and definitely worth experiencing’
‘It was great to see your fantastic presentation’

Anna Coombs (Artistic Director Tangle Theatre)

 ‘A Promising, original idea. Script requires enormous distilling for clarity whilst lyrical / movement vocabulary require a more thought through integration. A good start to a worthwhile exploration. Clearly a lot of hard work has been undertaken by writer and director. With more investigative and exploratory time away from the prying eyes of an audience, further gems are potentially there for discovery.

What Next?

What Next?

The next stage of the project involves reflection followed by further research into possible partnership/ funding, touring and producing opportunities.
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