Oral history interview with Ibukun Fasunhan
Monday 14 October 2019
Transcribed by Jayne Batzofin
Balogun Okay, good afternoon.
Fasunhan Good afternoon.
Balogun Sir, can I meet you officially?
Fasunhan Okay, my name is Ibukun Fasunhan. I'm a director, stage manager and a writer.
Balogun Okay, Ibukun it is a pleasure having this conversation with you. This project is tagged reimagining tragedies in Africa and the global south, RETAGS. It's being led by Professor Mark Fleishman, the director of the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, University of Cape Town in South Africa. The basis of the research is to look at the reimagination, the reinterpretation/adaptation, whatever language you want to choose to call it, of Greek Tragedy. I know in the last couple of years you have worked mainly as a stage manager, with some of the big directors in Nigeria, and you have also directed some of these plays. For one thing, while we were talking, before we started the interview – you mentioned your work as the production manager of the The Gods are not to Blame that was staged in London…
Balogun that was in 2016/2015?
Fasunhan I think it should be 16.
Fasunhan 2016, yeah.
Balogun And then you also directed Osofisan's Women of Owu…
Fasunhan Women of Owu, yeah.
Balogun Okay, let's start with The Gods are not to Blame. Let's look at the production process of The Gods are not to Blame. Quite a number of people I spoke with earlier, before you, have talked extensively about The Gods are not to Blame: the story line, the plot, so on and so forth. Now, let's look at the production of The Gods are not to Blame in London that you were the production manager.
Fasunhan Okay, ummm, when we wanted to do the production of The Gods are not to Blame we wanted to… because The Gods are not to Blame in the first instance was something that was staged over and over and over again. So we were looking at what is the first thing that we really need to add so we decided to infuse screen into the performance…
Fasunhan … screen into the performance…
Fasunhan … and also infuse film, film in a …
Fasunhan … so we had to record some, some scenes. For example the scene of the… the scene of the…. uh I have forgotten this father that was killed in the…
Fasunhan … Adetusa! We recorded these things, we recorded the battle scenes and everything. So we had to infuse these things, and because we knew…. uh… to start we wanted to take some cast from Nigeria to UK. But because of budget constraints, you know, so we decided to film those crowd scenes…
Fasunhan … and then take just few cast from here, there. So that we still have authenticity of an African…. eh… society. And again we wanted people to really, you know, because now they were taking, exporting a Nigerian production to UK, we wanted people to know what it is to be in, for example, in the forest there are so many things that could have just been imagined by people on stage. So we decided to do that and you know the play was basically involving what is happening on stage and on screen and everything. So for example…
Balogun Okay, so it's a kind of stage performance with multime…
Fasunhan … multimedia elements.
Balogun … elements.
Fasunhan You know, for example if Odewale was talking from the screen…
Fasunhan … you know we see he leaves the screen and we see on stage.
Balogun Okay. It's moving from the screen onto the stage …
Fasunhan …onto the stage so the film was, so we shot, as in we wanted to make the scene, in a way, as real as possible…
Balogun Okay, is that supposed to be some kind of an attempt at uh… at gesturing towards the kind of intimate relationship that people now have with multimedia, the technology and so on?
Fasunhan Of course, of course! Because presently Nigerian theatre, you know, we are all moving towards the technological [aspects], we want to be as innovative as possible, you know? So, that was one of the major reasons, why we did the filming aspect, you know?
Balogun So a number of the scenes, those ones involving the forest …
Fasunhan Involving the forest, the crowd, they were recorded and everything and sent back to London. So that is the major reason, but another reason, the underlying factor for it was because The Gods are not to Blame is one of the most performed plays in Nigeria. So what new thing do you add to …
Balogun So you wanted that as a kind of an innovation …
Fasunhan … an innovation to The Gods are not to Blame.
Balogun Now, I know you mentioned that the reason the number of cast that you take to London because of ... Eventually how many people actually left Nigeria to go to London?
Fasunhan Well the production was quite messy because nobody actually left again.
Fasunhan Because of visa issues…
Balogun Oh, they were not …
Fasunhan … they were not granted visas.
Balogun By the UK?
Fasunhan Yeah, by the UK and it was partly because of the planning issues from Thespian Family Theatre (TFT).
Balogun The production company?
Fasunhan Yes. So they didn't apply for visas as a group, they applied for visas as people as individuals.
Fasunhan So there was different issues with…
Fasunhan … logistics. Logistics issues. So what we had to do was to send people the script that was there, that could take those lines….
Balogun So it means there had to be another audition in London?
Fasunhan Yes because…..
Balogun With the same director or another director?
Fasunhan With the same director because the people we were just taking from Nigeria was Odewale and …
Balogun and the other one, the lead character?
Fasunhan Odewale and uh, I forgot the name of this priest …
Balogun Baba Fakunle?
Fasunhan Baba Fakunle. Those were the two people who were taken from Nigeria …
Balogun They eventually left?
Fasunhan They didn't leave.
Balogun They didn't, oh okay.
Fasunhan They didn't leave.
Balogun Okay, so it means the entire cast eventually, while the plan was to take some Nigerians…
Balogun … the entire cast eventually became…
Fasunhan … became Nigerians in UK because we had to look for Nigerians who could understood the nuances….
Balogun Okay, do you still remember the theatre where it did perform?
Fasunhan Oh I can't, I can't.
Balogun Okay… but how many shows were performed?
Fasunhan I think it was about five…
Balogun Five performances?
Fasunhan Maybe when I can see the brochure, then I can remember how many shows….
Balogun But how was it received?
Fasunhan I think the issue they had with the play, which I've always had with the producer, is publicity.
Fasunhan So it was not received that well because it wasn't publicised.
Balogun In terms of the box office?
Fasunhan In terms of box office, it wasn't publicised. And in fact the Nigerian audience in the UK, didn't even know…
Balogun That a play like that…
Fasunhan That a play like that was coming. So it was poorly poorly…
Fasunhan … advertised. Poorly poorly.
Balogun Well let's talk about some technical things apart from the screen that you were trying to use. What are the directorial choices that were made?
Fasunhan Well that was a major directorial choice because most of the rehearsals for the play was going on in UK.
Balogun Oh, okay.
Fasunhan Most of the rehearsal was going on in UK. We only rehearsed the two major characters, that was Ola Rotimi and Toyin Oshinaike who were supposed to play Odewale and Baba Fakunle.
Balogun Oh, okay.
Fasunhan Those were the only two people we rehearsed. And it was not really a rehearsal like that, that you know …
Balogun So who now did that? The director who came down to rehearse or you did that?
Fasunhan The director. The director was in Nigeria for like I think three weeks …
Balogun To work with …
Fasunhan … to work with those two actors based on what he has directed his other people in UK. So the plan was to work with these people and then merge them …
Balogun To merge them …
Fasunhan Yes to merge them …
Balogun In the UK?
Fasunhan Yes but it didn't really work, so they had to look for….
Balogun another set of actors..
Balogun Okay, that is interesting. Now let's talk about the one that you directed, Osofisan's Women of Owu. So let's proceed with that.
Fasunhan Okay, my …
Balogun Generally people thought or people feel that the action is actually rather slow, you know in terms of … In fact Osofisan himself, I interviewed Osofisan about five or six days ago. Osofisan, who wrote the play and directed it when he was the General Manager of the National Theatre. Admitted the fact that the play was regrettably dull and then that he said it had to be like that because one long lamentation, he was trying as much as possible not to move so much away from Euripides' play that he had adapted. I am talking about the Trojan Women. How did you manage your own directorial choices?
Fasunhan Well, to start with, the intention of directing that play was for secondary school students.
Balogun Okay, that's the target audience.
Fasunhan Target audience. And it was because it was one of the plays they were using as …
Balogun In the secondary school?
Fasunhan In the secondary school. I think Women of Owu is like three hours long.
Balogun Yes, very long.
Fasunhan And there's no way to make people sit in the audience for three hours. Especially secondary school students because of course the attention span of children is just for like for 45 minutes, after 45 minutes they switch off and everything. So how do you keep an audience for at least one hour and 30 minutes, without boring them. So I had to remove… to start with I had to read the play over and over again. I had to understand the Trojan Women where Osofisan was coming from…
Balogun So you went back to read it again?
Fasunhan Yes, the Trojan Women, where Osofisan was coming from. I had to pick the major things …
Fasunhan Issues in the play. Gesinde, I think Gesinde was in the play…
Fasunhan So I had to pick some bits and I had to really remove, you know there's a lot of wailing, you know the play, to me the play was one of the most difficult plays because it just drags on…
Balogun Yeah Osofisan mentioned that it was one long lamentation…
Fasunhan ... and drag on.
Balogun So what you did was to dramaturg the text?
Fasunhan Yes I cut it down to the basics.
Fasunhan To the basics, to the point that when I looked at the play I said "okay, without this scene and this scene the play could still be understood".
Balogun So what are the parts you actually removed and the ones you retained?
Fasunhan Ah, it's been a long time but I remember…
Balogun When was this performance?
Fasunhan That was when I was in year three or year four.
Balogun And that is how many years [ago]?
Fasunhan That is like 2009/2010.
Balogun So let us say that is 10 years ago.
Fasunhan 10 years ago. But I remember I made, I focused more on the wife, the girl that had issues with her child, I've forgotten the character…
Fasunhan Iyunloye. You know that was my main focus with Gesinde.
Balogun That's Adumaadan?
Fasunhan Adumaadan yeah, yeah, yeah. Adumaadan. So that was my major focus and in the process of all the wailing I had to cut it down it down immediately because you know, my approach… I was inspired by, my approach was inspired by…Ben Tomoloju style of the directing you know.
Fasunhan Because when I was in involved in the production of Kurunmi that he directed. You know his whole approach is less is more, less is more, you know? Don't give the audience everything, let them… So I tried to okay… Because and again, I had that comedy into it.
Fasunhan Through Gesinde.
Fasunhan I added the comedy through Gesinde.
Balogun Why did you have to do that?
Fasunhan Because of the students, because again the way I direct, is that I look at the audience I am directing for.
Balogun Okay. So the audience for the Women of Owu that you directed, actually influenced your directorial approach.
Fasunhan influenced my directorial approach a great deal.
Fasunhan For these students that are coming to watch a play, because they are reading it as a text and also the need to understand it. And again…
Balogun But you don't think that cutting some major part of it could hinder their understanding of it?
Fasunhan Well I didn't think so because if you look at the play, you realise that there are some repetitions and I feel the playwright was unnecessarily putting emphasis on some things there. So I had to trim it down to the basics. But not losing the fact that, not losing the major theme of the play and you know… But there some parts that were just, for example, there are some lines they would have said and Adumaadan would keep on emphasising you know? So I felt it was an overkill, an overkill; just reduce it and everything and let the children enjoy it basically.
Fasunhan And Gesinde… I turned Gesinde into a comic character, and that was inspired by Shakespeare's idea of Tragic Comedy.
Balogun Like for instance when we have the Porter's Scene in Macbeth?
Fasunhan Yes because when I look at the play deeply, I thought these parts are actually tragic but in a way looking at it deeply there are some comic aspects to it. When tragic things are relived, after some years it becomes comic. So that is what I tried to make those things be. Because those are the only parts I could make comic.
Balogun Was your cast … how did you…
Fasunhan Well they were mainly students.
Balogun From …
Fasunhan From Unilag
Balogun From University of Lagos.
Fasunhan From creative art, you know like classmates and some people lower levels and everything.
Balogun Okay, so what was your audition like?
Fasunhan I didn't really do… I did mostly type casting.
Fasunhan Type casting because again we didn't have the largesse to have an audition.
Balogun Oh, okay.
Fasunhan And financial constraint to have an audition …
Balogun So you just invited actors …
Fasunhan Invited actors …
Balogun … you have worked with …
Fasunhan …dancers I have worked with, to make sure the thing worked. And because of the budget constraints again because the producer targeted secondary schools and again when I looked at the whole thing I said: "okay let us collapse this thing". So the wailers, the children, the Adumaadan people, I can't remember the play again now, Adumaadan people were dancers at some point, Gesinde warriors…etc And I tried to reduce blackouts in the play.
Balogun So the wailing women, also doubled as dancers.
Fasunhan As dancers, yeah.
Balogun And some soldiers?
Fasunhan And some soldiers of course. You know, just to reduce costs as much as possible.
Balogun How many people were involved in this production?
Fasunhan I think it was up to 20.
Balogun Both cast…
Fasunhan I think it was up to 20
Balogun Both cast and crew?
Fasunhan Both cast and crew.
Balogun And where were the performances held?
Fasunhan Well it was as the Arts theatre in Unilag
Balogun University of Lagos
Fasunhan Yes because they bought students from different secondary schools to see the show.
Balogun Inside unilag.
Fasunhan But the production couldn't tour after that because of financial constraints.
Balogun Okay, the production ran in the Arts Theatre in the University of Lagos for how many days?
Fasunhan For two days.
Balogun For two days. How many shows?
Fasunhan Two shows because of when students … because of the students' schedule. Yeah, school and everything. I think we did 12'o clock or something.
Balogun Okay, let's look at the costumes. How did you come about the idea of the costume? What type of costumes did you use? I know the play is set in 19th Century Owu, you know, so to speak.
Fasunhan Well I can't even remember, but I know… I don't know what it was but I just stayed with the aso oke.
Balogun Okay, traditional Yoruba costumes.
Fasunhan Traditional Yoruba costumes and for Gesinde, you know the warrior kind of thing. But again because there was not so much money to play around with you just had to use some costumes you could find from the costume at the University of Lagos main auditorium, to support. And also we got some help from outside, you know just to supplement… but it was low budget production.
Balogun Okay, low budget …
Fasunhan Low budget production.
Balogun So the set construction how was it like, what was it like?
Fasunhan There was no set at all.
Balogun You performed on a bare stage?
Fasunhan On a bare stage, there was no set at all.
Balogun Without even maybe a back drop or something?
Fasunhan There was no set at all. You know, so when I was directing the play I made sure that there was no black out, the scenes moved from one scene to another.
Balogun Okay, just to eliminate…
Fasunhan … eliminate any restriction of set and everything because again, I had to also look at the producer's budget, you know? So how do you make sure that the play is good, is enjoyable without all these technical restrictions.
Balogun Okay, so you had actors who had costumes normally but there was no set?
Balogun So you performed on a bare stage?
Balogun Did you think your audience, students who came to see, actually got the message?
Fasunhan I got talking to some of them and they got the message because they were like "Ah, this is the first time we understood this play!" Because in a way I feel, I don't know that's my own perception, I feel the play should, is not meant for these school students, I don't know. But the first time, when I realised they were using it for secondary school students, this play is much more …
Fasunhan … intellectual and advanced.
Balogun Deeper …
Fasunhan Deeper for secondary school students.
Balogun …for the level …
Fasunhan So my major issue like I said previously, how do I take this play to the basics. That these children will understand what this play is about because they may not even had read, Bacchae, I mean they might not have even read Trojan Women. So I had to bring it down to what they could identify with.
Balogun So obviously you kind of so to speak, had to rewrite the…
Fasunhan of course, of course. I had to, I had to. There were some scenes I had to bring forward, there are some scenes I had to cut out totally.
Balogun So more like adapting the adaptation?
Fasunhan Yeah, yeah! How I wish I could have seen the script I used now, the script was just everywhere, cut out so many things. The thing I noticed about the lines of Women of Owu is that if you try and piece it, you lose the meaning.
Fasunhan So, instead of piecing it, I decided to cut out lines. Instead of piecing… and I remember that it was Yusuff Tiamiyu that played Gesinde. So I used him as a comic relief, any time that they are crying I quickly bring him in. To lighten the mood and everything. And that is when the audience actually laughed…
Balogun The students.
Fasunhan The students actually laughed, because you know that…
Balogun They were looking for points of relief…
Fasunhan … of relief. If I don't put that I don't think that I would have been able to make my students watch the play at all.
Balogun mmm. That's an interesting one.
Balogun Let's now look at The God's are not to Blame and Women of Owu. In your own way how would you describe Tragedy as a concept? That is beyond the Aristotelian [framework], how would you see Tragedy?
Fasunhan mmm. Well… (pause). Coming from Soyinka's idea of Tragedy and my own kind of thing, I think Tragedy has gone beyond maybe someone dying in a society, like the Aristotelian form to basic issues like now.
Balogun Such as?
Fasunhan Such as for example issues of money can be tragic. Economic finances and everything and you know, there are many things that is tragic about the society, as left the hubris and so many things, you know. So many things are leading to a tragedy and the concept of modern tragedy right now has left maybe the issues of the kings that were maybe depicted in ….
Balogun Let me rephrase that question, and look at it this way. What specific socio-situation do you think we can say a play like Women of Owu is trying to allude to?
Fasunhan Okay… (pause).
Balogun In your own perspective, how would you relate Women of Owu…apart from the… Osofisan said he wrote this play at the time when the Gulf War was going around… the carnage. He tried to look for something in the mode of the Gulf War in the Yoruba history. And he thought the history of the destruction of Owu Kingdom the first Kingdom in Yoruba land by the allied forces. Transforms really well with the allied forces that destroyed Iraq.
Balogun That's like trying to link his own idea of Women of Owu to Euripides' Trojan Women, and the reality of the Yoruba history and that of contemporary violence and war that happened in America and Iraq in this present [time]. Which is like a very long chain, that connection is very long… very long into the past…
Balogun … and very so much close to us and our own reality. So in your own case how would you, to what can you relate that to… what we are saying now is, how are you taking tragedy away from the stage into every day, you know… life and existence … or maybe The Gods are not to Blame, for example if you can't even remember something from Women of Owu…
Fasunhan You know… okay…. because what is coming to my head for Women of Owu is the issue of APC/PDP
Balogun The political parties?
Fasunhan Yeah. In fact the issue of The Gods are not to Blame we are looking at the queer situation right now in the country, where the father is marrying the daughter…in a way to me it has taken a new turn in a way…
Balogun Okay. So you think that incest, of Odewale marrying the mother…
Balogun … has a new dimension?
Fasunhan … yeah, because it's really has a new dimension right now because in the present day society the incest can now be redefined. Because people right now are not looking at the issue that has become a common place.
Balogun Incest has become common place?
Fasunhan …common place in a way. People now see it as, how will I say it …
Balogun As a normal thing?
Fasunhan … as a normal thing and the idea of freedom of, the concept of freedom, the concept of ability to just be yourself and not follow in someone's shadow. That's in a way, I feel, can be classified under moral decadence of the society. That's if … I feel if, Odewale and these people existed right now, Fakunle … there might have been a twist to the story. That okay, is it really, are the gods really to be blamed, you know?
Fasunhan So many things are happening right now, that the concept of Tragedy is changing. So many things are changing and yeah …. it's been a long recalling …it's very difficult.
Balogun Okay, thank you so very much Ibukun Fasunhan. It is a pleasure.
Fasunhan Thank you sir. Maybe when I remember (laughs)
Balogun It's alright… Thank you so much.
Balogun turns off the audio recorder