On their way to a family dinner, three sisters are divided at a crossroads. From Nigeria in the 1700s through Brazil, Cuba and the USA to London in 2013, the sisters survive by their spirits – spirits of courage, mischief and incredible resilience.
This epic production is a vibrant exploration of the magnificent Yoruba culture.
A Young Vic and Royal Court co-production of Feast a new play by Yunior García Aguilera (Cuba), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Marcos Barbosa (Brazil), Tanya Barfield (US) and Gbolahan Obisesan (UK).
Directed by Rufus Norris (Cabaret, London Road, Vernon God Little) and written by five playwrights from across the world it is brought to life with dazzling music and choreography.
Tickets are available to purchase for all performances until 2 March directly from the Young Vic at www.youngvic.org
Part of World Stages London.
5 stars The Independent on Sunday by Kate Bassett, 10 February 2013
Moving swiftly on to the virile trickster-god Esu and a trio of argumentative sisters, Feast at the Young Vic is an electrifying and pioneering piece of multimedia theatre. Brilliantly directed by Rufus Norris (of London Road acclaim), it traces Yoruba culture and its religious traditions from their West African roots, through the Atlantic slave trade, to Brazil in 1888 (the last nation in the Western world to embrace emancipation), and thence to the diaspora in modern-day Cuba, America and Britain.
I have to admit I didn’t come away with an entirely firm grasp of who’s who in the Yoruba pantheon. The performers whirl through the centuries, playing out vignettes scripted by playwrights from different continents (this being an international co-production for World Stages London). Yet these scenes offer fascinating insights, take unexpected angles, and can be witty and complex, exploring unresolved tensions.
You learn that Esu is an unreliable shapeshifter, associated with crossroads, chance and chaos, but that change, in this belief system, is to be boldly embraced, while a person’s ultimate goal is self-knowledge.
Norris’s talented ensemble and creative team – including Cuban choreographer George Cespedes – also relay the cultural history using a weave of dialogue and spine-tingling song, ritualistic and sexy contemporary dance, and playfully inventive set-design by Katrina Lindsay.
Swaying goddesses, with heads like corn sheaves, and generations of women emerge through a shimmering beaded curtain that flickers with ghostly projections. And Esu, a lithe flash of scarlet against the darkness, materialises in numerous guises, one minute in tribal robes, the next in trilby and winklepickers. Dazzling.
4 stars Mail on Sunday by Georgina Brown, 10 February 2013
I’d never heard of the word Yoruba before seeing Feast, a vibrant new show that sets out to celebrate the culture and beliefs or the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnic and religious groups in West Africa.
The slave trade took them to Brazil, Cuba, America and the UK, but wherever they are, their key to a balanced and contented life comes from getting to know their ‘ori’, or your inner head. Which makes them just like the rest of us, if you ask me.
Director Rufus Norris frames five smart little playlets with an introduction to the most significant Orishas, emissaries of their supreme deity, whose task to guide and influence mortals. The first piece has an impoverished plantation owner releasing the old slave woman who was his wet-nurse, expecting her to go out and find the children she was forced to give up.
In another, a young woman in the Sixties dares to defy her parents and join the Civil Rights movement. Noma Dumezweni is very funny as a Cuban prostitute who puts a shawl over the little shrine in her bedroom when she’s working. Her white American client doesn’t want sex; he thinks she’s got magical powers.
There’s a wittily written scene about black attitudes to whites in which a black Olympian is taunted for ‘licking some pink toe’, a euphemism for having a white coach. ‘When you’re flying, you’re British, when you’re falling, you’re that black athlete from that Commonwealth country.’
Another scene is about a young, black American girl exploring her roots, to the bemusement of her sophisticated, right-on mum.
If the intention is to show the various Orishas at work, it misses. But as a celebration of the spirit of survival; of Yoruban music and dance, Feast is a joyous, exuberantly entertaining and irreverent hit.
Katrina Lindsay has come up with an ingenious, fluid design: video projections are cast onto a curtain of metal chains, through which people come and go.
In one brilliant stage illusion, one character walks behind a moving panel only to re-emerge as an entirely different person in a brand new red costume, an image that vividly suggests moving on, while retaining a vital and deeply felt identity.
4 stars The Times by Libby Purves, 5 February 2013
“A-She!” cries the shape-shifter Orisha. The audience, warm, young and cheerful, repeats it, willing to co-operate with anyone so entertainingly multiform (the director Rufus Norris has, with a rolling screen, just transformed him again). Orisha leads us through a diaspora, as earthy West African Yoruba spirituality echoes over two hundred years and four continents.
It is a merry welcome, despite the grim historic trade that scattered Africans to the Americas and Europe. Playlets by five writers (for World Stages London) celebrate rather than rebuke, with music from Sola Akingbola of Jamiroquai. We meet three sisters, on an African track, and Orisha as a beggar with an (impressively placid) live chicken. Slavers are coming. After a beautifully lit ballet projecting a skeleton ship and elegant 18th-century slave auction list, we are in 1880 Brazil. Slavery has ended, a white man turns away his old nurse — “All I have to give to a slave is an open door.”
Flickering shapes of Klan and noose, and we are in the US civil rights movement; then in a fierce, witty sketch, an Afro-Cuban “anti-imperialist whore” entertains an American broker who wants not sex but a “santera” spell. She shrugs that she makes that rubbish up, but impatiently gives him a corn-cob. “Ah Yes! biofuels!” he cries, rushing off to invest.
Brilliant. So is the London 2012 section: a girl athlete barracked for fraternising with a “pink-toe” coach. But why then, she asks, do black boys chase white girls? Bridling like a politically-correct Lady Bracknell, the lad replies: “Revenge!” Her scorn brings cheers of hilarity. And on we go, through vignettes from each continent , towards two final and excellent jokes. Generous, wise glee drums through the show like a human heart. Gotta love it.
4 stars The Independent by Paul Taylor, 5 February 2013
The injunction to be unafraid to embrace the chaos of life is one of fortifying principles of Yoruban culture.
It’s a philosophy that director Rufus Norris and his team seem to have taken to heart in a big way in the devising of Feast, a bold and exhilarating show in which five playwrights from as many countries tell the story of the diaspora of the Yoruba people through a miraculous melding of music (everything from a fusion of spirituals and Catholic hymns to salsa and soul), joyously sinuous, metamorphic dance (choreographed by George Cespedes) and Lysander Ashton’s ravishingly fluid and eloquent video projections (which at one point swarm with original slave-trade documents)
Multi-authored works have not exactly been flavour of the decade (Greenland, anyone?) so, despite the fact that a diversity of perspectives is integral to the piece, there was always the risk that Feast would turn into a glorified dog’s dinner. It has to be admitted that, examined individually, the actual playlets feel a little undercooked and skimpy in this co-production between the Young Vic and the Royal Court. But the canny overall structure and the versatile verve of the 13-strong cast help bind the ingredients into a singular vision of creative persistence and resilient adaptation to change.
The proceedings begin in Nigeria in 1713 when the journey to a feast of three sisters, who are part-human, part-”Orisha” (Yoruban deity) is interrupted at a cross-roads by Atlantic slave traders. The trio resurface loosely in the subsequent centuries, along with the figure of Eshu, the cockily sexy orisha of trickery and chaos whose proneness to accident brings a characteristically irreverent mood to the supervising spirit-world. Norris keeps wondrous control of tone as the piece shifts to Brazil in 1888 and the mixed blessings of emanicipation for an old slave woman given the boot by the owner she once suckled, then to a 1960s Civil Rights sit-in, then to Cuba in 2008 where a self-professed “anti-imperialist whore” finds her American client taking a strange interest in her tatue of San Lazaro.
After a post-Olympics episode in which a young athlete in London is accused by her peers of selling out to a white trainer, the piece ends in a flurry of feasts throughout the diaspora. There’s a wonderfully surprising, funny and moving twist to the London one. It suggests that ethnicity is no bar to espousing the defiant positiveness of the Yoruban spirit, which Feast chooses to embody rather than analyse. 4 stars Guardian by Michael Billington, 5 February 2013
After Benedict Andrews’s radical update of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, we now have another sibling trio on stage at the Young Vic. This time, the sisters symbolise Yoruba goddesses, and they are at the heart of this epic, multi-authored show, jointly presented with the Royal Court as part of World Stages London. It offers a spectacular feast for the eye – but I would be lying if I said that it achieved a satisfying intellectual coherence.
The aim is to show how the values of the Yoruba belief system spread from Nigeria across the world. The story starts in west Africa in 1713, where three sisters, representing motherhood, beauty and change – “orishas”, or emissaries of the supreme Yoruba god – are separated by a mischievous trickster and the cruel imperatives of the slave trade. Tracking their influence on different cultures, the action of this 115-minute diaspora drama takes us from Brazil in 1888 to America in 1960, Cuba in 2008 and the UK in Olympics year, before winding up with a series of family get-togethers celebrating the continuity of Yoruba values.
Five writers have contributed to this cross-cultural story, and some show more persuasively than others how Yoruba beliefs have permeated different cultures. There is a vivid Brazilian scene about the tenacity of the maternal ideal, and an extraordinary Cuban one where a Communist sex worker is visited by an American client seeking spiritual, rather than physical, relief. But it seems odd to yoke the US civil rights movement, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, into the argument. Even a lively London scene in which a black female athlete is encouraged to reject her white coach seems tenuously connected to the thesis. It does, however, yield the best line of the evening, when the athlete is told: “When you’re flying, you’re British – when you’re falling, you become that athlete from a Commonwealth country.”
What holds the evening together is the staggering, kaleidoscopic vivacity of Rufus Norris’s production, and the vitality of the performances. Videos projected on to Katrina Lindsay’s mobile string curtain whisk us from continent to continent with memorable fluidity. Noma Dumezweni, Michelle Asante and Naana Agyei-Ampadu endow the three sisters with exactly the right blend of the physical and the spiritual. Alexander Varona is sensational as the dancing trickster too, at one point leaping from the ground on to a table with nonchalant ease. At the end, the audience went wild; and, even though I think the case for omnipresent Yoruban values is only half-proven, no one could deny the show packs a sensuous punch.
4 stars The Daily Telegraph by Dominic Cavendish, 4 February 2013
Be ready for – and embrace – the chaos of life. Don’t try and be the person you’re not. Respect the past and where you came from – acknowledging your ancestors – but look to the future, don’t manufacture resentments.
Set down on paper, the take-home sentiments expressed in “Feast”, a wide-ranging, free-flowing exploration of the diaspora of the Yoruba people – and a belated mid-winter blast of activity from the London 2012 “World Stages” season – look like the sort of words of wisdom you’d find in a fortune cookie.
Strip away the soulful song and lithe dance, the colourful costumes and magical video projections that are the chief characteristics of this show and what have you got? A handful of playlets (authored by Yunior García Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield and Gbolahan Obisesan) that barely yield more than fleeting impressions of the subject at hand. In conventional terms, they’re dramatic doodles bordering on duds.
And yet it’s all in the mix. Thanks to the dynamic contributions of a 13-strong company (including Jamiroquai drummer Sola Akingbola), shape-shifting choreography from George Cespedes and the expert, risk-taking hand of directorial master-chef Rufus Norris – who was partly raised in Nigeria – this theatrically triumphant affair rustles disparate ingredients (including a live chicken) into a consistently fascinating, hugely energising experience. The overall mood itself – of exuberant defiance and continuity in the face of deracination – is the message, and it’s aimed at the guts not the head.
The montage of scenes begins in early 18th-century Nigeria at the point of the Atlantic slave trade’s arrival, which interrupts the feast-bound journey of three female Orishas – emissaries of the Yoruban God Oludumare. These figures loosely recur, as does that of the tricksy, highly sexual male Esu, a pivotal Orisha.
The evening rounds off with a feast in contemporary London that comically – and radically – suggests that it’s not ethnicity that decides whether you can lay claim to the Yoruba spirit world. In between lie vignettes of an old slave woman being given her marching orders by the Brazilian plantation owner she once suckled; a fiery Cuban prostitute being asked to deliver a spot of divination by a white American client; a brave, lone decision to resist family pressure and join the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; a New York family wrangling about the value of studying the provenance of rap-music; and an entertaining, incendiary row in a London street about the ramifications of a relationship between a successful black athlete and her white coach.
Yes, the show whets an appetite it doesn’t fully sate. And it can’t be said you leave immediately the wiser. But greatly the richer? No question about that at all.