Pre-publicity for Resurrections has marketed its author 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas astutely, as a man who gave up the lucrative job of running an illegal gambling operation in Nigeria at the age of 16 to go to university and become a writer. It was an art-conquers-all story tailor-made for the broadsheets, the perfect hype.
However, cynicism of this kind is dashed on encountering his work itself. The fact is that Bandele-Thomas is an astounding storyteller, in both senses of the phrase. He is a teller of astounding stories. The world of Resurrections is an exaggerated version of contemporary Nigeria, in which a drug baron (who clothes himself in euphemism, insisting that he is an enterprising businessman who has spotted a gap in the market for "commodities") can use both senior contacts in the corrupt military government and simple bribery to sue for his acquittal on a capital charge. Negotiations between his counsel and the over-dignified judge are conducted in a haze of poetic circumlocution, in chambers where the very writing-desk is alive, resting on the head of a mute menial. One of the characters describes the story he himself inhabits as "Kafka on speed", which isn't too far from the truth.
Here, too, the dead routinely return to the living to offer advice, smooth their journey into the next world or even to rewrite history. These ghosts carry no air of the extraordinary about them, but are simply an intrinsic part of the fabric of things. Bandele-Thomas has fashioned a West African counterpart to the creations of the Latin American magic-realists.
He is also an astounding teller of stories. The impulse to weave tales seems stronger than the desire to ensure that their fabric is smooth: he possesses a fantastic ear for individual phrases, and an enviably fertile imagination through which his narratives twine, but as the play progresses from one episode to the next there is not infrequently a palpable clunk as his dramatic locomotive crosses the points. So compulsive is this urge that on the conclusion of the main story he cannot resist the temptation to keep the tale going somehow, anyhow; he tacks on an even more fantastic coda in a future to which his characters return in different guises. Yet the mark of a true storyteller is that the listeners ignore such roughnesses because we want above all to know what happens next, or how it happens.
In Yvonne Brewster's production, it happens with startling visual opulence. The judge's throne is periodically flown up to hover above the rest of the action; chilling, vulture-headed, stilt-walking figures stalk the proceedings when the smell of death hangs in the air; more ridiculously, a ghost arrives onstage on a bicycle.
Ben Thomas as the principled criminal Baba BB has all the implausible dignity of a Charlton Heston; his underling Santana – the storyteller within the play – is, in Colin McFarlane's performance, a beguiling mixture of inarticulate deference toward BB and confident fabulation toward the audience. A less fantastic show would be stolen by Don Warrington's Judge Bassey, the worm who finally turns; here he is scarcely more outré than those around him.
Bandele-Thomas' play Two Horsemen returns to the Gate next month, and his film Bad Boys will soon be screened by the BBC; stories keep spilling from him, and judging by Resurrections the outpourings from his wellspring are both flavoursome and refreshing.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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