With a cast of three on an almost bare stage, Here’s What She Said to Me blooms into a cross-generational epic about mothers and daughters that contains multitudes within its seeming simplicity.
The story begins in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1957, three years before the nation’s independence. The actors travel through the next six decades playing three women down the generations, but also switching between a panoply of family members around them, from inspiring grandmothers and stern husbands to spirited daughters whose confidence and hope, as girls, is yet unbroken.
It is a beguiling way to stage a family saga even if it leaves its actors with a burden. They rise to it on the whole, switching fluidly from direct address to dialogue, from English to Yoruba, and incorporating dance, song and mime in thrilling ways, though their changes between characters lack clarity in moments and feel a little dizzying.
Oladipo Agboluaje’s script captures the women’s romances, achievements and dashed hopes. Mistakes are repeated down the generations, but there are gains too. Agbeke (Ayo-Dele Edwards) is pushed towards a life of learning and independence by her grandmother, but falls into a destructive marriage instead. “You must remember I was in love,” she says by way of apology for her wrong turning. Her daughter, Omotola, (Estella Daniels) gets further in her education, travelling to England for it, but her greater ambitions are also curbed by marriage. She in turn urges her daughter, Aramide (Kiké Brimah), to strive for a bigger, better existence as a British-Nigerian woman.
Powerful scenes enact different forms of compromise or coercive control within marriage, though we are whisked out of these a little too quickly and at the most critical moments. We stay longer on Agbeke’s bigamous marriage in which she comes up against a younger, combative second wife, and feel more emotionally connected to her as a result. Unlike the more comic treatment of bigamy in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, the story here is stark, stunting Agbeke’s life and leaving great trauma, even when she seeks comfort in traditional faith healing.
Beautifully directed by Mojisola Elufowoju, music and movement become metabolised within the story, and ingenious ways are found to stage a moment of intimacy, a mother’s death and a child’s rape. Some scenes are built through Rob Hart’s crisp sound design – the chimes of Big Ben, the burbling of a stream, the rumble of a London commuter train – and Andy Purves’s lighting saturates the stage with atmosphere and mood. Props are used inventively , with one breathtaking moment when a sheet becomes a river, and then a swaddling baby.
Alongside its central theme of womanhood, there is a sensitive exploration of cultural identity, migration and the meaning of “home” as the family moves between Nigeria and Britain. We are told at the beginning of “the bond between the living and the ancestors”, and Agbeke stands by the side of the stage, long after her death, casting a protective eye over her family’s women and sending strength in their moments of need.
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