Aphra Behn's 1688 novella Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave may subsequently have been of great value to the abolitionist movement, but the second half of the story is here balanced – unusually as far as stage adaptations of the work are concerned – by the narrative of Oroonoko's prior experiences in the Gold Coast kingdom of Coromantien. Indeed, quite early in the proceedings Biyi Bandele's adaptation and Gregory Doran's production for the RSC show signs of wanting to part company.
Bandele says he took "nothing except the plot" from Behn's work, and indeed the dialogue shows all the signs of his characteristic register. It is at once richly poetic and sardonic: the king gives his personal bodyguard fearsome names, only to be told, "Blue Numbing Death's off sick today", and the strain of courtly rhetoric which runs through accounts of war, love and even at one point the weather is periodically punctured by wide-boy modernities such as when the ageing, lecherous king tells his latest prospective consort, "I tend to take a 'no' and yes it up."
One can bathe in the milk of Bandele's phrasing, and Doran decides to supply correspondingly rich spectacle: games, war-dances, a wedding ritual and even, once Oroonoko and his loved ones have been transported as slaves to Surinam, a nostalgic tribal blues punctuate the proceedings, to excellent percussive accompaniment by Juwon Ogungbe. Not infrequently, however, the picture grows blurred as between dramatic set-pieces and a kind of historico-anthropological travelogue. Doran seems to be going for a big, bright, buzzy – but always respectful and quasi-authentic – extravaganza to pull in the punters (although not the young ones; if this season's Midsummer Night's Dream is deemed too risqué, what will school parties make of the extended exchanges of ritual praise of the king's prowess in the loincloth department?). This is, after all, the tale of a noble prince's suffering at the hands first of a self-serving grand-vizier character and subsequently under the casually brutal hypocrisies of English slavemasters ("I said they were not to be trusted," smugly declares David Collings's drunken, two-faced Byam immediately after his own treachery has provoked an attack); on one level it simply feels wrong that so much of it should be so ravishing.
Nicholas Monu and Nadine Marshall, as Oroonoko and his beloved Imoinda, are at their best in the first act; after the interval, events take precedence, and the characters never really find strong voices in their new surroundings. Geff Francis is icily assured as "the king's chief liar" Orombo, and Jo Martin both eloquent and yet direct as Imoinda's mother, Lady Onola. It is an immensely engaging and enjoyable production... so much so that, notwithstanding the sudden, violently downbeat ending, it is possible to lose sight of the more sombre ingredients which are at the core of Oroonoko's claim to continuing attention.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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