The Lion and The Jewel was written by Nobel prize-winner, Wole Soyinka, when he was just 23 years old - almost 50 years ago - but it is still a compelling fable of the conflict between tradition and advancement in a Nigerian Yoruba village.
This energetic and jubilant production, directed by Chuck Mike and presented by Collective Artistes in association with the Young Vic and Barbican Bite, whisks the audience to their African setting as they enter the auditorium with lively percussion, encouraging one audience member to dance to her seat.
The story, which is played out employing a variety of modern and traditional story-telling techniques, including song, dance and dumb show, revolves around a simple, vain girl Sidi (Omonor Imobhio) – the jewel of the title, who has delusions of grandeur brought about by having her photograph taken by a visitor from Lagos - and her two suitors, the westernised, arrogant schoolteacher Lakunle, (Anthony Ofoegbu) and the traditional village elder Baroka (Toyin Oshinaike), the Lion.
From the opening encounter between Sidi and Lakunle, punctuated by the responses of a chorus of giggling schoolchildren, played by members of the ensemble, we learn that Sidi is not open to Lakunle’s progressive ideas. He wants to woo her with the romantic lines he has picked up in books and marry her without paying the bride’s price, which he thinks is a degrading out-dated custom. She doesn’t respond well to “this strange licking of my lips with your mouth” and doesn’t want to be made a laughing stock by not wedding for her proper worth.
When Sidi attracts the attention of Baroka, she's offered a different life – the potential to be favourite among his wives and concubines and to live forever in the palace. However, he's too old for her inflated ambition and she initially refuses him. It's only when she learns of his alleged impotence that she's tempted to his bedchamber to mock him - a scene played out while Baroka is conducting his “daily exercise” – a well-choreographed fight with his wrestler. But the lion is cunning, and he has called her bluff, and so the tale takes an unexpected twist.
The plot moves at a pace and the re-enacted back stories, superbly choreographed by Koffi Koko, are a joy to watch. This is a world where “news of festivities travels fast” and song and dance are a part of daily life. The only drawback is that the strong Nigerian accents occasionally cause the audience to miss some of Soyinka’s excellent dialogue.