Lynette Linton has a truly electric approach to theatre. Off the back of her phenomenal and gorgeously lit production of Jackie Kay’s Chiaroscuro in 2019, the Bush’s artistic director picks up slow burner House of Ife to launch the theatre’s new season – and it does not disappoint.
A new script from Papatango-shortlist playwright Beru Tessema, the 1 hour and 45 minute drama follows a fractured Ethiopian-British family grieving the loss of their brother/son, Ife. The make-up of the which is wild and chaotic, too. Yosi (Michael Workeye) is the PlayStation-loving “roadman” and comic relief with an affinity for addressing everyone – even his sisters – as ‘bruv’ and ‘man’. Tsion (Yohanna Ephrem) is quiet but intelligent, and Aida (Karla-Simone Spence) is the talented artist rocked by the loss of her twin. The line-up is completed by mother Meron (Sarah Priddy) and distant father Solomon (Jude Akuwudika) – the latter of whom sparking controversy among the family for missing Ife’s funeral.
It’s ultimately a play about how an individual grieves, and whether they truly have the space to do so. Even in between his brooding and listening to Kendrick Lamar, there’s a sense the grief is bubbling underneath the surface for Yosi, suppressed by a father who despairs at the loss of his language to urban vernacular. Even more devastating is Aida’s reaction to it all, so delicately but powerfully performed by Spence. Prevented from truly processing her loss through art, it’s the moments where she turns her back to hide and push down the tears, or turns to alcohol, which are so striking. Meron and Solomon want to preserve heritage and religious practice, but who wins when cultural expectations collide with one’s personal processing of grief? And with all this pressure, is it any wonder that the family are complaining about just how stuffy the room is getting?
The room, by the way, is impressively staged by Frankie Bradshaw. Rectangular in shape in the centre of the Holloway Theatre, with audiences watching from either side, it only adds to the feeling that everything is being squeezed for every family member, making everything just so suffocating. When the conflict reaches a head, we see which sides – both of the stage and of the family – each person takes. It’s only when the characters are alone on stage that we see some of what they’re feeling unleashed, exposed with gorgeous hues from lighting designer Jai Morjaria.
That, and in such rich monologues from Tessema exploring the multifaceted sensation that is grief, and how it can be processed – from religion and rituals from Meron, to the loss of a twin bond from Aida, to Yosi’s rap (so brilliantly performed by Workeye). From the outset, we know something is up with this troubled family, and while the revelations may take a tad too long to be unearthed, when they do, they flow with such an intense rhythm. Their deft delivery from an exceptional cast is captivating, demanding our attention, and the healing which comes from the exposition is truly invigorating for the audience. House of Ife is a tender fight to breathe easy, and one which connects with us all.
House of Ife is now playing at the Bush Theatre until 11 June.
Relaxed and sensory adapted performances will take place on 14 May and 2 June; captioned performances will occur on 19 May and 28 May; and audio described performances are scheduled for 21 May and 26 May.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.