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lime Theatre Interview: An exclusive interview with Professor Wole Soyinka

Lime interview - Theatre

An exclusive interview with Professor Wole Soyinka

words by

Sophia Jackson

Reporter: Sophia Jackson

In benefit for theatre company, Collective Artistes, friend and patron of the organisation, 

Nobel Laureate professor Wole Soyinka discussed culture and politics at the Southbank Centre with the Centres’ artistic director Jude Kelly OBE at a gala evening last month.

The main reason for your trip to the UK is for the Benefit event at the Southbank centre to raise funds for Collective Artistes. How do you think organisations such as Collective Artistes influence society for the better through theatre?

By being what it is and doing what it does and that means addressing themes which are not necessarily of relevance but which contribute to society and the community. I don’t want to suggest the themes that a group like Collective Artistes addresses in theatre must be of immediate relevance to that community. No, it can be something different to the immediate concerns but at least it expands the mind of the group and becomes a sort of adventure in understanding the world. 

As a play reader for the Royal Court theatre – what was it like being involved with such an establishment?

It was exciting. It was a transformative period for theatre in the UK at the time. I was fortunate to have been in that cusp of transformation. The Royal Court theatre was very adventurous and progressive. George Devine, was a real genius as both the Royal Court’s theatre director and manager. He was innovative it took his kind of imagination to recognise immediately that drawing room theatre was over or at least fading out and he saw it and recognised it and immediately dedicated himself to exposing it. 

Could you please share one of your earliest childhood memories of theatre? 

At an early age, I took part in an operetta directed by my father who was the headmaster of the school. It was called The Magician. I remember I thoroughly enjoyed it even the rigorous discipline as it meant I escaped housework. Being in that operetta was my first multimedia experience combining music, acting and dialogue. I also enjoyed being centre of attention. I played the lead role and enjoyed that very much. At that time I had no idea that one could make a living or occupy oneself doing that sort of job. Even though we had a tradition of theatre such as folk opera I didn’t think people made a living from it. I was either going to be a pilot or a lawyer – the usual stock.

Was there a battle with your parents when you didn’t decide to go down that traditional route? 

No, no, no. I think my parents would have preferred if I was a doctor or I went for medicine or even law as we have a number of lawyers in my family or education like themselves but they realised it would of been a waste of time. 

How has Nigerian theatre evolved over the years?

A rollercoaster journey. Television encouraged and at the same time unmade theatre. There were regular theatre productions on the television but the quality went down because people couldn’t produce enough scripts at that pace. The quality in acting went down and then simply by hammering at it, by going at it, the actors gained more experience and theatre went up again in quality and quantity. 

At the same traditional theatre groups, which were called Folk Opera groups also pocketed and benefited from the existence of television because they were living a very precarious existence so the arrival of television meant people earned decent money. Then came ’Nollywood’ – a word in which I loathe by the way. It’s one of the ugliest words. It’s unimaginative. First Hollywood, then Bollywood and now Nollywood – for me it’s contrary to the imaginative spirit. 

From time to time I check out the development and must say in terms of technique and acting things are gradually picking up. But we mustn’t forget the oil boom which came upon in the mid-seventies and many people abandoned the arts, not to go into the oil industry itself but to go into the various ancillary businesses that were attached to the oil boom. Then there was the civil war which affected the arts very badly and it took some time to recover from that so it’s been a rollercoaster. Now there are regular performances in Lagos although they are finding they have to compete with the video/film industry but at least it feeds the actors who don’t get much livelihood from just theatre

What’s one of your favourite plays that you’ve directed?

When I directed Death and the King’s Horseman in Chicago that was something I enjoyed doing. I was working with actors who had never worked on that kind of material in their lives and it really was like creating something completely new. They were professionals who had worked on traditional American theatre but this was a new world which I had to induct them so that particular production I have fond memories of. 

Where you happy with the National Theatre’s production?

I thought it was a marvellous spectacle. I had irritating moments – I always do. When actors are lazy about new words, especially names – when they don’t give names their correct value. Give them a Russian name and they pronounce it properly... Yes, I find that very irritating. 

What are your thoughts on the production Fela?

I saw it in the States. I thought the vitality was unbelievable, the Fela lead was excellent and it was also a unique show in many ways as reviewers said, New York had never seen anything like it. It was an original piece of theatre – a lot of imagination went into it. I think it was a good legacy and what I liked is that they didn’t pretend that they were doing an authentic life of Fela.

Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?

I never answer that question. [Laughs] 



I saw some interesting plays there. That was where I first saw a contemporary black South African play. It would be a shame if it was closed down. I think foreign cultural centres where activities of a particular culture go on are vital for all communities so they don’t become too insular so they can have a comparative environment of the arts in general. 

If one has the benefits to be able to live in an environment where there are centres of foreign cultures, one should be very grateful as it gives you a more rounded view. I don’t mean that you will know everything about that culture, no, but you will get a taste of it and that can actually trigger off creativities in you that you never knew existed. Those are some of the advantages.

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