Oroonoko, RSC at The Barbican Pit

Note: The following review dates from the production's original run at The Other Place, Stratford in May 1999. It opens in London on 20 December 1999.

Having been unjustly neglected for three hundred years, Aphra Behn, the English proto-feminist writer, is now all the rage. The subject of a fine new biography by Janet Todd, her writings are widely studied and at least one of her plays, The Rover, is regularly produced. She wrote Oroonoko as a short novel in 1688 and this tragic story of an African prince taken into slavery forms the basis of a new play by Biyi Bandele, the talented young Nigerian born writer. One can understand why Gregory Doran s, energetic production of Oroonoko has been promoted as “an adaptation of Aphra Behn s Oroonoko”, but it is rather more than this.

When the tale was utilised in the eighteenth-century campaign to abolish the slave trade, only the second half of the story was used. Bandele gives full weight to the first part set in West Africa at the court of a tyrannical old African King who requisitions Prince Oroonoko's bride as his mistress. Act Two follows the young lovers into slavery in the British West Indies where another old man, white this time, seeks to rape the princess. The horror of the slave trade and the tragedy of the slaves are graphically and poignantly revealed.

Bandele s dialogue mixes poetic grandeur with occasional injections of modern mid-Atlantic slang. His play is at its weakest when he follows Behn s complex plot too closely in the leisurely and sometimes laboured first act; at its best when he gives his own creative imagination freest rein. The narrative action, which is sometimes deeply moving and at others a little slow, is enriched and enhanced by ritual speech, music and movement.

The production is visually and musically splendid and this owes as much to Doran s creative team as to the actors: Niki Turner s design, Tim Mitchell s lighting, Alex Oma-Pius s movement and Juwon Ogungbe s music create an exciting piece of modern African drama, a theatrical spectacle. Nicholas Monu leads an ensemble of 14 actors, of whom young David Oyelowo s Aboan is outstanding. Monu s Oroonoko stresses the hero s humanity and caution at the expense of his nobility and heroism.

This play is strongest when plot gives way to ritual. Forget Aphra Behn, this is Biyi Bandele s Oroonoko. It s an example of a dramatist taking an old story and transforming it into something new - which is, after all, a process which audiences in Stratford should be well used to.

Robert Hole

Oroonoko opened at The Other Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, 28 April 1999 (previews from 7 April) and continues in repertory until 6 October.