I went to see the opening night of House Of Ife at Bush Theatre. It was also the night of QPR v Sheffield United at Loftus Rd and so crowds of jolly people could be seen going by outside, along with police vans and officers on horses.
The play is performed in the main Holloway Theatre which has been configured as a 2-sided arrangement with the stage in the middle. The two ends represent parts of a flat in North London near the end of the Piccadilly Line.
The space in the centre can be either another room in the flat, when a dining table is added, or it can be the garden outside, and in the final scene it is a hillside some distance away where the characters can look down at the city.
The story occurs in the weeks after the funeral of Ife, who only appears in a painting and in recollections. He was the twin brother of Aida, the oldest children of Solomon and Meron, who travelled to Britain from Ethiopia, and after settling in London had 2 more children, the younger daughter Tsion and son Yosi. The time is the present day – there is a reference to a gathering indoors being a potential “superspreader”, and the current war in Ethiopia is mentioned on several occasions.
Ife died from his long-term drug addiction, having moved out of the family home when he was aged 16 following years of bad behaviour at school. Aida went to art college and now has a successful career starting, with her own show at the Whitechapel Gallery opening soon – she’s happy to get “back to London” as she fells outside of it. Yosi mocks her career (“in a warehouse, painting tyres”) and what he sees as her affectations, whilst being stuck in a shelf-stacking job but making attempts at becoming a rapper. Tsion is a trainee teacher. Solomon is away in Addis Ababa as he left the family years ago, and has got a new family in the old country, where he is working as a preacher and has built a house which was intended for his first family to return to.
We see first of all the 3 children trying to come to terms with the funeral in their own way. When they start dancing to music, Meron tells them to stop and be more respectful. Solomon rings from Addis that he has missed his flight and will be coming later in the week. When he arrives, he is first of all an invigorating presence for Yosi, and stirs him with inspirational preaching and telling him what he can achieve if he smartens up and reads and follows his Bible. But we learn that he has some legal papers he wants the children to sign relating to the house he built for them in Ethiopia. The papers are made out in Amharic, which none of them can read, but he assures them that it is simply permission to build an extension so he can continue his work of helping the poor and needy. Meanwhile Aida is drinking and becoming anxious as she tries to deal with her feelings about Ife and his death, which she was unable to articulate at his funeral.
This is a tightly-paced story that builds up to a (literally) punchy climax. There are several divisions in this family: the age differences between parents and the twins and the younger children; the differences between the ones born in Britain and the ones born in Ethiopia; the differences between Aida and her career away from the home and Yosi staying near to it; the differences between the attitudes Aida absorbed in the new life and the old ones Yosi finds attractive when Solomon reminds him of them. The soundtrack between scene changes is from modern pop and hiphop, matching the world of the children who hold the stage while the unseen elders talk in the other room on the day of the burial. Ife himself slowly becomes clearer to the audience as we find out why Aida was ambivalent about his life and death at first.
All the performances are excellent, and the show could be expanded easily into several episodes of a TV adaptation.
It is not stated exactly which church Solomon preaches for, so the banner image comes from a site about Ethiopian Christianity.