Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is an icon of impeccable style. When Wole Oguntokun inaugurated his epoch-making Theatre Republic in Lekki, Lagos on Sunday, September 11, Soyinka was present in fine fettle to do the dedication. He asked for vintage wine from Oguntokun, that is the younger Wole, and poured libation on the stage. After dropping droplets of wine on three spots onstage, Soyinka said: “We should not let the ancestors to get drunk!” Applause rose within the audience. He then added: “By the way, this is sweet wine. Next time you should get a sourer one!” The audience applauded some more.
Oguntokun confessed that he bears a burden in that anywhere the name “Wole” is mentioned people almost always respond thusly: “Soyinka”. Of course Soyinka dominates the ambience of time. He was in his electric elements as all through the Sunday evening he sat on the stage with the astute moderator Deji Toye answering the multiform questions from the invited guests on aspects of the theatre, literature and life in general.
For Soyinka, the director of a play should serve as an intelligent guide of the playwright’s work in aid of the audience. The director has to take proper cognizance of the stage to understand how the play can be accommodated. The space available must be factored in for a proper interpretation of the given play to be rendered. Soyinka who does not hide his disdain for the National Theatre in Lagos argues that a play presented there cannot be presented in the same manner at the newly-minted Theatre Republic.
Given his travels around the theatres of the world, Soyinka cited the example of the distinguished theatre director Peter Brooks who had on occasion broken down and rebuilt expensive theatres to give the needed stamp to his productions. Brooks could even reconfigure the seats of the theatre to make the audience very uncomfortable while sitting through a three-hour production.
Soyinka revealed that the actors of his 1960 Masks group were extremely accomplished professionals in other fields other than the theatre. They brought along their cars and, at times, lines had to be learnt while driving through the streets. Even as these actors had other obligations they tried to be as dedicated as possible. It was Soyinka’s search for a more professional theatre set-up that he initiated the Orisun Theatre group where the young thespians became totally immersed in theatre work, building sets, designing costumes, working from morning to night and back to morning.
According to Soyinka, the great renaissance of his generation of writers came about because at that time it was incumbent on them to prove that they were as good as the rest of the world. The prevalent racism of the age had to be countered through the comparative literature coming from the newly-independent nations of Africa. These authors felt challenged to prove that they could through the written word provide even better grist to the mill of the African world as opposed to the wild imaginations of the Europeans.
He would not agree that the younger writers of today are not matching up in the scheme of things with the older brigade. He stresses that there is actually a boom of writing in the new age and admonished the men to match up with the output of the womenfolk.
Soyinka had his barbs for what he called the “N” word, to wit Nollywood. He could not understand why because of Hollywood there has come to be in place the so-called Nollywood, Bollywood, Gallywood, Kannywood and other “Woods” besides.
It was for me the rare opportunity to set eyes on Soyinka’s younger sister Folabo whom I had not seen since leaving the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in the early 1980s. We had actually acted together in Akinwunmi Isola’s Madam Tinubu, a play staged in Ife, Ibadan and Lagos. Soyinka’s eternally adorable wife Folake was as ever her personable self. I had to ask Soyinka the question about the whereabouts of his very first play, The Invention, which I thought had remained unpublished. I was indeed surprised when Soyinka disclosed that the play had at last been published by somebody in South Africa. He advised that I could get a copy via Amazon.
And thus Wole Oguntokun’s Theatre Republic was born. Soyinka had to travel back to Abeokuta, divulging that some days back he had to spend about six hours on the terrible road.