The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives review – a swaggering spectacular

Arcola, London
Femi Elufowoju Jr directs an arresting version of Lola Shoneyin’s novel about marital power-play and sexual envy

“Sir, you will deposit your sperm inside,” a hospital nurse instructs Baba Segi as she hands him a beaker. He – a polygamist and paradigm of chauvinistic braggadocio – insists he does not need a fertility test and that it is his fourth wife who needs to be examined, for “barrenness”.

He is told to leave his deposit in the container anyway, and with that begins a masturbation scene of such epic and eye-wateringly Rabelaisian proportions that it becomes the definitive show-stopping moment in a production filled to the brim with sexual swagger and sensational daring.

Based on Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling 2011 novel, the play is set in an enclave of modern-day Nigeria where tribal custom and witchcraft still rub up against rationality and science. Ostensibly about polygamy in old Africa, it is a far more universal story of the shifting power-play inside a marriage and sexual envy between women. When the youngest and most educated wife, Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni), enters the scene, the other three plot murderous schemes against her, like Macbeth’s witches. This adaptation by the award-winning writer Rotimi Babatunde captures the complicated gender dynamics: his rampant misogyny, their occasional misandry, and the quiet, subversive power they wield inside his household.

The director, Femi Elufowoju Jr, recently staged a live reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, prizing out the text’s satire and treating the misogynistic characters with an arch, ironic humour. He does the same here, mercilessly sending up Baba Segi (Patrice Naiambana) as a crude buffoon.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
The energy never dips ... The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

What makes the production so bold is its unabashedly physical treatment of sex: the wives are spotlit in flagrante, grinding themselves on their lovers in a state of ecstasy. But there are bedroom scenes in which Baba Segi is brutishly thrusting legs apart and pawing at pained bodies, and in these moments, the ribald humour plunges into sudden savagery. One scene dramatises Bolanle’s rape at the age of 15 before flipping back to comedy; the same switch follows a child’s sudden death. The shifts from lightness to dark and back again give the performance a dangerous and unpredictable undercurrent.

The staging is stripped back yet inventive, with the lighting and choreography creating their own visual poetry: figures crouched on the floor morph into swaying wheatfields; women swathed in red become the giant, gyrating backside of a sexy street-seller in a lesbian fantasy; characters in an imaginary car begin dancing jauntily to its movements, as if in a Dick Van Dyke musical.

The play’s energy never dips and the actors, doubling up repeatedly in their roles, give nuanced, charismatic performances. The effect is nothing short of spectacular.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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