Fela!

The latest production from NT Live is a dramatised biography of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti

Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti was a man who, in his own words cared about just four things – ‘marijuana, pussy, cake and ice cream’. To make such a seemingly narcissistic character sympathetic requires clever storytelling, a strong lead actor and no small amount of chutzpah.

Thankfully, playwright and choreographer Bill T Jones has pulled it off with Fela!, a production currently packing them in at London’s National Theatre, and tonight’s performance is broadcast live to QFT as part of the groundbreaking NT Live season, which broadcasts plays to cinemas around the world.

Fela! is the tale of an influential musical maverick, an innovator often talked about in the same breath as the likes of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. Set in 1978, but including events from the 1980s, the Tony Award-winning extravaganza takes us on a journey from Kuti’s infamous Lagos nightclub, the Afrika Shrine, to the mean streets of Los Angeles and back.

Along the way the play touches upon the British colonisation of Nigeria (Kuti moans that all the Crown left behind was ‘gonorrhoea and Jesus’), the 70s Black Power movement and Kuti’s own political aspirations.

On the surface, it’s a classic rags-to-riches story. ‘Get out of Africa, get to America, get rich, get famous,’ dreams Kuti, oblivious to the tragedies that lie ahead. But behind the singing, dancing and joking (a mid-section involving Kuti and a giant spliff borders on stand-up), there is pain and anguish.

US actor Sahr Ngaujah commands proceedings as Kuti, donning a series of ever more garish outfits to bring the legendary multi-instrumentalist to life. Ngaujah presides over a soundtrack of Kuti’s timeless music – a blend of smooth jazz, throbbing funk and African rhythms.

At three hours and five minutes – including, for this performance, an interval interview with Jones – Fela! is undeniably heavy going. By the time the sprawling production arrives at the desecration of Kuti’s compound by the corrupt Nigerian army, it is almost too much.

The military authorities are furious when Kuti declares the area to be an independent republic, and take their revenge by sexually assaulting his female associates and throwing his mother to her death from a window. It is to Jones’ credit that he manages to pull the show back from this harrowing sequence to end on a high.

Fela! is a magnificent undertaking, but it is an awkward fit for NT Live. What worked so well with last September’s Stephen Fry simulcast at QFT – an intimate audience with the wordy comic – is irrelevant here.

High definition cameras capture every dance move and bongo beat, and the sound is crystal clear, but a lot of energy and intensity is lost in the translation from theatre stage to cinema screen. There is just no substitute for being in the front row, surrounded by the dozens of actors, dancers and musicians.

Still, the next NT Live events, simulcasts of Derek Jacobi’s close-up King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse and a new take on Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle with Benedict Cumberbatch, featuring Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of doctor and creature, should be more like it.