I came to the Arcola Theatre prepared to be baffled by a play about politics in Nigeria (it’s not my specialist subject). I left 90 minutes later having been warmed up and amused by a bright and funny play about politics in Nigeria, with a brilliant central performance by Patrice Naiambana.
The main character in New Nigerians is Greatness Ogholi (Naiambana). We meet him as he campaigns to be President of Nigeria at the next election. Greatness is an impressive orator who strongly believes in his populist party, the People’s Revolutionary Party, but it is when he stumbles over the speech clearly written for him, or speaks in asides to the audience, when we really warm to him. He appeals directly to us to intervene if he seems to be on the verge of losing his integrity.
He realises that his party may need to form a coalition with the ruling party, the National Progressives of Nigeria, in order to win. This presents the dilemma of which compromises he may have to make, and we see this played out throughout the course of one day.
Chinasa Umezurike (Gbemisola Ikumelo), Greatness’s running mate, is very much a comic element and bursts onto the stage with her large sunglasses and even larger afro, texting and tweeting. When stressed, she smokes cannabis, which she hides about her person in her bag, in her hair and down her own cleavage. There is more comic repartee when Greatness hands a large bag of what is probably actually Dalston’s finest marijuana to an audience member to look after. Chinasa cracks wry jokes about not getting enough sex since her husband was born again – again – and later still she is seen swigging wine from the bottle and heard having a clandestine bonk off stage with Danladi Musa (Tunde Euba), the corrupt, sexist leader of the NPN.
My husband is Nigerian, I have heard Nigerians discuss their country and its politics before. However there are still a few bits slightly lost on me. I didn’t even get the strapline at first: “You cannot make dodo without frying plantain.” (Simpler than I thought: dodo is the name for fried plantain; it is like the English “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”). I would imagine there were others in the audience who had less Nigerian knowledge than me. But this does not impede the impact of the play.
The play by Oladipo Agboluaje and directed by Rosamunde Hutt is full of ideas about politics, religion and power. It is an interesting satire on Nigeria today and is bang up to date with its references to social media and even Brexit. Ikumelo is a great actor to watch, playing both the exuberant (and high) Chinasa as well as the newly god-fearing Grace (Greatness’s separated wife) on the other end of the spectrum. Above all there is the wonderful mixture of the gentle, the earnest and the principled man in Greatness. Naiambana is charming, warm and humorous with the audience, and he treats his character and his character’s concerns with great respect. His engaging depiction of Greatness on a human level, as he simultaneously deals with the funeral of his father, and the breakdown of his marriage, makes us care deeply what happens to him personally and what happens to his country.