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[Performance Analysis:] AN UNFINISHED MAN, The Yard Theatre, London.

Overall, this is a rather sensationalist performance, relying on its characters’ conflicting points of view and life experiences to confuse the audience; its stylised sequences to add flare and mystery, and to communicate the non-physical aspects of Kayode’s (Fode Simbo) curse; and its [erroneous] metatheatrical techniques to “launch the audience into the narrative”. It remains, however, a humorous and light performance, despite the nature of its material, and this is due to its caricatural representations from its endearing performers and to its witty cultural references.

I shall begin with writing. Themes of denial are certainly very poignant in this performance, from Layo (Lucy Vandi) denying Kikiope’s (Teri Ann Bobb-Baxter) access to her heritage and to tacit cultural knowledge, to the disbelief aimed at Pastor Matanmi (Mark Springer) for his methods and wisdom, to the characters’ denial of Kayode’s lived experiences and perceptions. Truth, in this way, is instrumentalised in a most mind-boggling manner, to interrogate, challenge and obscure the real and the subjective, the physical and the spiritual.

Dialogue is actually rather well written, and scenes are structured well, but content is rather repetitive, overall. There are many scenes that deal with similar issues, especially those wherein we see Kikiope coaxing Kayode to lead as normal a life as possible, despite his current state, and those wherein Itan (Selina Jones) is constantly being resurrected — supposedly, much to our surprise, but, in reality, this becomes most predictable. These ought to have been either cut by director Taino Lawson completely, embellished and deepened, or simply replaced with refreshing and altogether different material. This variation is desperately needed to enrich this text, I feel.

On to acting. This is certainly a talented cast, showing great promise and good ability, but there is a certain lack of particularisation and skill across all performers. I shall start with Bobb-Baxter. This performer seems to have a background in spoken word, sporadically and randomly altering her delivery to perform in an overly stylised and poetic manner, entering into a persona different to that of her ‘principal’ character. To mark such ‘altered’ deliveries, we see Bobb-Baxter extend her hands forward slightly and becoming robotic in her movements and speech. She seems to latch on regularly to the poeticism underlying her lines and delivers this accordingly, instead of delivering her lines with a naturalistic approach that better reflects the intentions and circumstances of her character. Of course, doing this latter would produce the desired poetic effect on its own. Bobb-Baxter does, however, have a great ‘coolness’ on stage, and performs with great attention to timing and delivery. Her attention is concentrated wonderfully on other cast members; great thought has been given to her engagement with them. I would just favour more expressivity and urgency in places, and, again, a more focused and steady expression of her character’s intentions, psychology and circumstances, as opposed to her character’s mere feelings and external responses to stimuli.

Selina Jones performs with an excellent corporeal awareness, moving fluidly and attentively. Her movements are precise, calculated and conscious. Certainly, Jones proves her skill in physical expressivity and malleability. When it comes to the delivery of her lines, however, we see, again, a characterisation intending to incite reaction and to produce effect, not a naturalistic or relatable representation by any means. Jones has a palpable talent but further skill is needed to sharpen intonation and expression to better equate her portrayal to natural human behaviour — which must still be palpable and discernible despite her portraying a spirit, especially as this spirit is chiefly humanised within this text. Notably, the dramatic and the stylised come naturally to this performer, as with her coughing blood or with her stylised movement routines with Simbo. Out of the cast, Jones is the most particularised and refined when it comes to her characterisation, and her constant busyness and preoccupation — arranging candles and flowers, reading books, and spectating and reacting to the motions and conversations of the other characters — bring great richness to the physical and external aspects of her character. However, vocal expression is mechanical and too heavily reliant upon convention.

Simbo lacks a great amount of corporeal tension when this is necessary — I think to his getting out of of the water pit or to the ‘motifs’ in his stylised movement solos that I shall detail below — but his delivery is certainly the most credible of the cast. He is clear on his character’s intent and objectives, and this is conveyed through a clear and credible characterisation. Though his movements and delivery do gradually become rather repetitive, I can safely blame this on the monotony of his character as it is written. He has, however, found a good deal of variation in his activity in the water pit.

Springer presents a wonderful and humorous caricature, with an incessant vitality, and with great thought to his character’s idiosyncrasies. His profile is in danger of becoming too caricatural and artificial in relation to the more understated acting style of the other performers, however. It is also in danger of becoming rather one-note, as I find it does from his scene alone with Bobb-Baxter, upon which I shall also elaborate below. Vandi, on the other hand, rather underplays her character, with few idiosyncrasies and observable traits. She does, however, have a good grip on naturalistic delivery, overall — perhaps the best of the performers in this way, alongside Simbo [but this is still far from exemplary].

In terms of stylised movements (movement direction by Robin Milliner), Simbo’s motifs — seeing him extend his arms above his head after freezing mid-movement, his leg stopped in its sideways motion as though he were about to turn — are too repetitive, I find, and this lack of variation is something typical of all stylised interactions, including Simbo’s fights with Jones (directed by Yaris Dor). Mirroring movements, for example, such as when Jones lifts and bares the palm of her hand for Simbo to copy her, quickly becomes commonplace in this performance, and this is without mentioning that such a practice is most unoriginal and cliché. I would have liked a more creative and inventive demonstration that Itan is within and one with Kyode’s body and that she is governing it, beyond this implied puppetry.

The use of disruptive metatheatrical techniques is most questionable in this performance. Yet again, I find a classic example of misuse. Jones directs a monologue to both Simbo and the audience, claiming that she is a positive influence, a beauty, questioning us, “Right? Right?!” The desired effect here is clearly to engage the audience, to get them thinking about their relation to and perception of this spirit, to intensify the dangerous and threatening quality of it in the realisation, upon the ‘breaking of the fourth wall’, that the spirit is unpredictable and can perhaps even affect us. Of course, the real effect is that the audience simply becomes aware of the artificiality of the performance, of themselves in relation to the space, to the performers and to those around them. Indeed, the audience is, rather, taken out of the performance, distracted by its now-exposed mechanical and artificial aspects, by the procedures of experiencing a piece of theatre.

This is intensified when we later find that the performers are amongst us, scattered around the house. Not only does this obscure the view of the action for the audience members sat directly beside/behind these performers, but this is also incredibly confrontational in its breach of the audience’s territory. Again, this does not cause an audience to feel ‘part of the action’ but simply aware of their function as an audience of a theatre, especially given that they must be deliberately ignored by these in-role performers. Except, strangely, they are not entirely ignored elsewhere. Performers often face the audience when delivering their lines, and this makes for a great stylistic incongruity: for example, in their first scene together, whilst Vandi plays to Bobb-Baxter, Bobb-Baxter plays to the audience, as though we are Layo. But Layo is clearly not in front of her but beside her, and this confuses topography to an illegible degree, especially considering that Bobb-Baxter then turns to Vandi to continue her delivery later on — so who was she directing this speech to previously? The answer cannot be ‘us’, the audience. Most confused topographical and stylistic decisions.

Now, set (designed by Rosie Elnile). Aesthetically, this is a beautiful design, and it is also an articulate one alongside that of the costumes (supervised by Rianna Azoro) and props, with their symbolic focuses. For example, to have Itan surrounded by flowers and candles, and to have her reading ‘All About Love’ by Bell Hooks and later dressed in a bridal gown with a fabulously long-trained white durag, is a wonderful manner both of presenting this spirit, whose virtuousness, beauty and positivity we are made to question, and of romanticising and prettifying what is elsewhere presented to us as a negative, underhand and occult aspect of ‘regular’ Nigerian practice. Although, I do not think that this spirit should have access to such common physical objects as this book; this demystifies and humanises her too significantly.

Another successful symbolic element to this set design is the water pit in the centre of the stage, water obviously being symbolic of cleansing, of ritual, and of the source of life — this latter is most notable, given that this spirit is later thought of in the same way, to a significant degree. This water pit is used particularly effectively after Kyode and Itan’s final fight where we see Jones’s body floating lifelessly on the surface of the water for a great duration of time, her face obscured by the rest of the stage. This is handled expertly by Jones. However, Simbo and [especially] Jones’s erratic splashing sends vast amounts of this water flying towards the lanterns on either side of the stage — predominantly those Stage Left. This is incredibly dangerous and ought to be reconsidered. These lanterns are particularly ineffective, regardless, and so a simple solution would be to remove these altogether. Overall, lighting design (by Ciaran Cunningham) is beautiful in this performance, despite its needless complexity in places, and sound design (by George Dennis) is crisp and facilitative.

“A coherent and fun performance but dampened by needless caricature, sensationalist elements and a lack of variation.”


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