Year of Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

  • Share on Tumblr

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


The Winter’s Tale or Ìtàn Ògìnìntìn, Renegade Theatre (Nigeria), dir. Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun, 25 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Julie Sanders, University of Nottingham

There are no bears in Nigeria, or at least it would seem so, from the opening moments of the reworking of The Winter’s Tale by the Renegade Theatre Company of Lagos. In the opening sequences it became abundantly clear to members of the very full audience that a number of keynotes of conventional British theatre productions of this play would be joyously set aside and, indeed, turned on their head. The production opened in attention-grabbling fashion, as is traditional in Yoruban theatrical cultures, with dance, drumming and song (including the remarkable voice of Motúnràyò Oròbíyi who played Ìgba or Time throughout as a Chorus, framing, introducing, transitioning, and often directly engaging with the audience in her sung storytelling). A group of mariners moved with oars to symbolise the journey of a Sicilian lord and the cast-off baby daughter of Şàngó (Leontes) to the dangerous Bohemian coast. There was to be no ‘exit pursued by a bear’; this ‘Antigonus’ (for the most part, characters bore significant Yoruban names in this production) was attacked by robbers and a very willing Globe audience was in the process primed for a show that reworked, rethought and intervened in Shakespeare’s play in all kinds of exciting and memorable ways.

Of course, we had also begun the play at a different point to usual. In an enlightening pre-show discussion with the director Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun and four of his company, the team talked of the non-linear approach they had adopted and, tantalisingly, gestured towards a surprise ending. In this version (or ‘African reboot’ as an Associated Press release the next day referred to it) we began with the discovery of the baby Olúǫlá (Perdita) by the Darandaran (Old Shepherd) and his son and then Ìgbà/Time quickly sang us over sixteen years to a festival of hunting (a trope that seemingly sits more readily within Yoruban cultural and theatrical tradition than classical pastoral sheep-shearing) where Olúǫlá (Perdita) and Fǫláwęwó (Florizel) were in full courtship mode. Suffice to say that these performers, Olúwatóyĩn Alli-Hakeem – a well known star of television soap operas and of the wider ‘Nollywood’ tradition in her home city – and Joshua Adémólá Àlàbì, brought a considerable degree of Nigerian ‘sass’ to the dancing between these two young lovers, much to the delight of an increasingly vocal and participatory audience. In this confident restructuring of the play’s events, then, the story of Şàngó’s intense jealous reaction to the affection he witnesses between his wife Ǫya (Hermione) and his oldest friend Ogùn (Polixenes) becomes an inset narrative told by the exiled Sicilian courtier Adéagbo (or Camillo, a crowd-winning comic performance by  Ǫlásúnkànmi Adébàyǫ).

What the production also became a story of on the night for me, however, was one about audience participation of a very specific kind. It has become something of a given now in writing about the Globe to pay tribute to its particular capacity for involving spectators in the production of the ‘event’ and, certainly, these actors had much to say on this subject in the pre-show talk, responding to the warmth they had felt in the matinee performance the day previous.  But audience participation is also central to Apidán theatre practice where spectators are accorded the status of ‘co-actors’ and frequently asked to fill in the gaps in retellings of traditional scenarios and tales. There was a lovely flowback and knowledge exchange between Renegade’s previous work and this encounter with Shakespeare and the Globe in that respect.

And that flowback was audible on the night I saw this production. As the Yoruba-speaking section of the audience warmed to their task on a pleasantly breezy London evening, the call-and-response rhythm of the production hit its stride. My partner, who worked for a time in Northern Nigeria in the early 1990s, was charmed to hear some all too familiar vocal responses that endorsed, questioned or quite openly dismissed some of the suggestions the actors were readily throwing out to them in their lines, frequently delivered as direct address. And the avian life of London seemed happy to get in on the act as well as one particular blackbird settled himself on the Globe thatch in the first half to join in his own version of call and response as Motúnráyǫ Oròbíyi sang her glorious framing songs.

There is much more to say (and think) about how this production refracts the Shakespearean story of oracles and animated statues through a Yoruban cosmology. The company is much influenced in this aspect of their work by their patron, Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, who was one of the proud guests of honour on Friday night much to the obvious delight of the actors. Şàngó is Leontes reimagined as the god of lightning and justice and in their biggest coup de theatre of the night Ǫya (Hermione) is only temporarily revived from her condition of statue in the final act to be snatched from Şàngó a second time and translated into the goddess of the whirlwind. The highly permeable line between human and deity, king and god, life and spirit-life, in Yoruban culture transported Shakespeare’s ending into a whole new ambiguous realm as a result.

One of the great encounters found in this cosmological reworking of The Winter’s Tale was between Autolycus and the trickster figure of Yoruban culture and art, here brilliantly interpreted by Adékúnlé Smart Adéjùmǫ. Her gender-bending, audience-challenging performance, which built quite readily on the significance of tricks and jokes in the Egungan tradition – which itself reaches back to sixteenth-century court theatre in West Africa –  was yet another marker of a night in which this Lagos company truly owned the space and the production. The G2G festival is raising important questions about possession and presence on the Bankside that we are all still, I think, as theatregoers and as academics trying to absorb. The effects of watching Shakespeare in a language not your own in the presence of many who are completely absorbed in the equally compelling experience of hearing Shakespeare delivered in their language on a London stage are visceral at times. Who owns the punchlines? Who is in on the joke? What are the stories about inclusion and exclusion, familiarisation and defamiliarisation, to be told here?

But it would be easy also to over-simplify and over-romanticise the sense of belonging that was being staged. The commissioned translation for this show was in formal Yoruban, not the colloquial hybrid language spoken on the contemporary streets of Lagos; and from the pre-show talk several of the performers had gone through their own struggle with the material and accessibility in this respect.

In the end though as I found myself standing in the yard that night and wanting to have eyes in the back of my head and be able to watch the audience (the audience that I could hear so much!) at the same time as what was unfolding on stage, it was about call-and-response. This was a theatrical ‘event’, an experience that stayed with us as we headed for a bus back along Thameside; it left us full of energy and with a different kind of choreography in our bodies. The director Olúwǫlé Ogúntókun would put that down to what the Globe makes possible in terms of proximity: quite literally, the nearness of actors to performers, but perhaps also what this festival is achieving in terms of enabling encounters, inviting us all to participate; as Ogúntókun put it in words that resonate with me; ‘If you are going to dance with us, you can’t do that from far away.’ The Globe danced, sang, and answered back quite willingly on Friday night.

What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Listen below to an interview with the director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:


Interested in what other audience members are saying about this performance? Look below to find a selection of the online debate:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Author:Julie Sanders

Julie Sanders is Professor of English Literature and Drama and Head of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. She has published on Shakespeare and adaptation in a range of books and articles.
  • Sunkanmi Adebayo

    Theater is very dynamic and it might be difficult to get a full grasp of the nuances, codes and semiotics of a performance in a language you are not familiar with. Adapting Shakespeare to Yoruba and especially a play like Winter’s Tale with a complex and intriguing plot is an herculean task. The decision to bring the second act forward might not be an excellent one but it was a risk the director took for a more dramatic approach.

    In terms of characterization, the two kings became two gods. Ogun and Sango are known for their fiery temper and burst of energy. Sango spits fire and Ogun in a fit of anger can destroy his enemies. Ogun is praised as the one who has water at home but drinks blood. Sango is referred to as the one with fire in his eyes and mouth. These are gods and not humans.

    The country scene was interspersed with music, dance, masquerades and clowning. These are element of spectacle in the Nigerian folk tradition and those you find in a typical festival such as the Eyo or Igunuko festivals in south western Nigeria or the Oke Ibadan festival which bothers on comic relief.

    There is a danger in re-contextualizing Shakespeare’s text in script and performance. There are pitfalls but then there is the adventure of diving into the unknown and pitching your tent in the world of Shakespeare’s where there are more divergent elements in terms of language, staging, culture, belief system and worldview.

    In the end for instance Hermione doesn’t return alive. This has a ritual significance in the Yoruba worldview. The world of the unborn, the living and the dead and the chthonic realm. Hermione crosses to the world of the dead and passes the torch to Perdita in prayers as continues to live.

    It will a disservice to compare these foreign companies with professional Shakespeare players. If you have not for instance seen and understood performances in an African in setting in their own language, your opinion or critique of The Winter’s tale might be subjective and your overall assessment might be short circuited.

    While there might be moments of drudgery and lengthy dialogue which in Yoruba were rich puns, proverbs, chants, poetry and idioms spectacularly enjoyed by the Yoruba speaking audience. To you a non-Nigeria you might find it dull and “UN-inspring”. While it important to preserve Shakespeare and guard the holiness of his works jealously, It takes a different psychology and experience to appreciate this feat by the Nigerian troupe.

    With the Globe to Globe project, Shakespeare is now open to the world, for experimentation, for adaptation and domestication. Mistakes should made but more importantly there should be no harm in sharing Shakespeare with the rest of the world.

  • Sheila Davis

    Superb performance! Any hope of getting a DVD of your achievement at the Globe?

  • Oloja

    It was an amazing night.

    As an early thirties Yoruba girl, it was glorious to see so many of my contemporaries in the audience and loving the interaction between so many different generations.

  • ajdehany

    When they started in the middle of Act 3 I thought it was a tremendously brave act, relegating the generically tragic first half to back story for the purposes of concentrating on the generically comic second half, comparable to but more striking than the way most of the other comedies have trimmed out longeurs, such as happened in the previous evening’s All’s Well That Ends Well with the wholesale excision of all the battle scenes that seem to have been dropped in as a random selection from the Histories. 

    But then they went back to the start, and I realised that this would be a long night. For all that privileging of joyousness over preciousness (what ever that means) the production hadn’t seemed to have trimmed anything down in the text (hard to tell with my ignorance of Yoruba, but seemingly). There was nothing remarkable in the staging. It dragged . I didn’t stay until the end, and I always stay til the end. The last act sort of winds itself down without much sense of danger or drama anyway so I forwent the Statue Reveal. I’m intrigued to know what the company did in the way of reworking it.

    From what I saw, if judged strictly as a production I would say it was distinctly unremarkable and a bit dull. Of course, to know the language could instantly transform it into something special, and perhaps this is what happened. It’s sort of maddening having our critical apparatus dismantled in this way, but also refreshing:

    Another case in point would be the Japanese production of Coriolanus, which was hard to follow and very static and which people I know walked out of. It was so strange that I couldnt tell if it was good or bad. It was probably bad, but it left me so far out at sea that I enjoyed it as an avant garde piece, Shakespeare rewritten by Hugo Ball and choreographed by Robert Wilson. Not knowing the language might have made it better; the confusing staging meant even the native Japanese needed the surtitles to be able to follow what was going on.

    The Winter’s Tale just seemed a little staid; perhaps it might have been better had it been translated into a demotic rather than mandarin tongue; both in terms of language ‘tripping’ along, and the actors’ attitude to it as live rather than merely staged action. It wasn’t joyless, or over-reverent, it just, in some way, seemed to ‘go over the page’, which is unforgivable in live theatre!

  • Sarah Olive

    I too saw the matinee. Julie mentions that the translation used formal rather than popular language…I was wondering whether this was in contrast to the music,dance and drumming used gleefully and effectively in the production, which seemed (from the reaction of the Yoruban speakers in the audience) to be rooted more in popular culture? The integration of these elements into the production had the effect on me of ramming home the importance of joyousness (of the actors, audience etc.) over preciousness (regarding tradition, text etc.) in creating stagings. Of course, joyousness isn’t the right mood for all scenes, in all plays – but the generation of it throughout much of this production helped create an emotional rollercoaster during darker scenes.
    Another realisation that this production led me to  – partly through the reworked final scene which dashed the audience’s hopes of ‘a happy ending’ (quite rightly, I’m inclined to think) but also through the staging of Leontes as a warrior king (he frequently carried weapons signifying his power and success onto the stage) – was the possiblity of pairing the play with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for my undergraduates. Perhaps this will not be news to many, after all Achebe’s novel is frequently talked about in comparison to Shakespearean tragedy. However, it does signify for me the potential of Globe2Globe productions, with their sometimes ‘unorthodox’, often unexpected, takes on the plays to suddenly spotlight words, characters, connections that British productions/theatrical traditions have left to languish in obscurity.

  • Christopher Cullen

    Much as I loved this production, I was left feeling unsure about the purpose of switching the early Sicilian scenes and the Bohemian scenes. It seemed an exciting idea at first but I was expecting the Sicilian scenes to be played in a different sort of mode, appropriate for a flashback. As it was, one missed the light relief that normally comes with the Bohemian scenes following the heaviness of the Sicilian court scenes.

    It also made the first half far too long (and the second far too short). However, this was at the matinee and it looked as though there may have been a technical hitch. (Was there?)

    I thought the ending was amazing.

    Christopher Cullen.

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now