Launching Bush Theatres 50th birthday season…
Beru Tessema’s debut play, House of Ife, seems to encapsulate all that the Bush has come to stand for – placing stories from unheard communities front and centre. The importance of this as an achievement should not be dulled and this is the first time that I have seen an East African (Ethiopian family), being portrayed onstage and I am glad to see diversity in Black stories being told.
House of Ife follows a family in the throes of grieving the death of their eldest son and brother, Ife. The pace is lightning fast as we meet the siblings, Aida, Tsion and Yosi for the first time as they all discuss the funeral and prepare the house to receive guests.
Although I found the initial pace of the show disorientating, it did set the scene for the family dynamic – the intent behind the words of each family member struggling to be heard, moments of vulnerability/intimacy missed over the clamour of voices. Kane Husbands’ movement direction brought this to life, as the siblings would often circle and move around each other whilst speaking. Tessema captures the voice of his community distinctively and there were pockets of relatable moments for anyone who was raised in a diasporic household – the difficulty of making international calls, hoarding parents, and relatives commenting on your appearance.
Jude Akuwudike’s slippery Solomon chastises his children for not knowing how to speak Amharic and this lack of knowledge extends to the children’s lack of familiarity with the ritual of mourning in Ethiopia. Immediately we see this clash when the siblings play and dance to Dizzee Rascal and are interrupted by their mother Meron (played compellingly by Sarah Priddy). Although I felt like the depth of her monologue was abruptly early, it was interesting to hear her exploration of the Ethiopian custom of grieving, which was bolstered by the movement scene where she and Aida wail and beat their chest. Thus, the maxim that everybody grieves differently is explored confidently in this play, both through the different family members and also the different cultures (Ethiopian and British) they are wrestling with.
The Ethiopian church ladies who come to mourn Ife are public with their grief and Duramaney Kamara’s sound design fills the stage with their prayers and wailing. Yosi (played by Michael Workeye) points out the performance of this grief is made by the same church ladies who would walk past Ife when they saw him begging on the road.
Frankie Bradshaw’s gorgeous set design frames this play’s exploration of the public and private ways to grieve with the audience sitting in traverse, voyeurs into the family’s most intimate moments.
How Ife died is never directly referred to but it is clear that he has battled with drug addiction and experienced homelessness. Tessema’s writing handles these topics sensitively and its shadowy mentioning by the family shows the debilitating effect of addiction and its ripple effect on the rest of the family. As Ife’s twin Aida, played by Karla-Simone Spence, takes his death the hardest, the silence around his death and addiction is perhaps what spurs her to immortalise him in how she remembers him. The artist in the family, like the painting she paints of Ife, she mourns colourfully and in big strokes, her grief erupting out of her body. At points, Spence’s performance felt overacted, conscious of the audience she was performing to which took away from the depth of her character’s grief.
There was also an added disconnect in seeing her volatility played in every scene and then seeing her family members’ reactions who were at best, unaware, or at worse, indifferent. Perhaps as a twin myself, I am projecting, but it would have been good to see Aida’s waves of grief so that by the time she finally explodes in the climax, the despair of the moment lands fully rather than feeling expected.
Recently nominated for an Offie for Best Newcomer, Workeye shines in a role which seems almost written for him. With a soft snigger or a perfectly timed ‘sorry mummy’, Workeye earns the audience’s attention in whatever scene he’s in. A good foot taller than the rest of his family, it is a testament to his physicality that he convincingly comes across as the youngest in the family – head lolling about, practically bouncing into every scene. He plays the comic relief until the penultimate scene and although I feel his moment of seriousness is left quite late when it does come, it is powerful as he matter-of-factly lists off to Aida, the pain that Ife caused the family which she did not witness.
The personal is political and the civil war described in Addis is going on in the internal world of the family which we see at the height of their fighting. Citing Miller as an inspiration in terms of writing a family drama, Tessema employs weather as a tool here, as events take place during a London heatwave. However, rather than being a constant pressure cooker of emotion, the play has one major flare up at the end.
The final argument is overwhelmed with loose threads – accusations of child abuse, sexuality and the issue of property all feel tagged on at the end and without any substantial Easter egging prior, it does feel like it comes out of nowhere. Lynette Linton’s directing, however, shows its strength and daring within this fight scene, Linton choreographs vignettes for the audience – Tsion (played by a grounded Yohanna Ephrem) and Yosi having a conversation in the corner, Meron’s disbelief whilst Solomon and Aida are in a stand-off.
As a debut, House of Ife is as striking as it is ambitious, and congratulations must go to the Bush Theatre for championing a writer who clearly has an exciting career ahead of him.
House Of Ife runs until 11th June @ Bush Theatre book tickets here