Patrice Naiambana: Darren Tunstall
A group of British acting students enter a dance studio. They are met by an imposing man in his late forties playing an African talking drum. He sings phrases to them and they respond by singing them back to him. As this call-and-response game develops, he gives them to understand that they should stand alongside him in a block and copy his dancing. Within the space of a few minutes, the group is stamping out a rhythm with their feet, chanting in an unfamiliar language, improvising with their bodies in a spirit of growing exhilaration. As the game changes and the group are invited to sit in a circle, I realise that not a word has yet been spoken by the man – everything has been communicated through music, rhythmic movement and discreet gesture. Now the man begins to tell the group (in English) a story of the birth and upbringing of a great African warrior. It is some time before it dawns on the group that the storyteller is talking about Othello. He leads the group into the plot of the play, provoking them into responding with simple questions such as, ‘Why can’t I marry Desdemona? Why don’t we just go and talk to her father?’ and so on. What we are all witnessing – in the music and dance, the storytelling, the creation of a mythic genealogy for a hero, the eliciting of response through audience provocation, the physical and verbal openness to improvisational possibilities – is an example of the kind of approach to Shakespearean performance that might be taken by a griot. For some years, Patrice Naiambana has been working to develop what he calls a
performance aesthetic that connects Shakespeare – in particular, Othello – with the methods of the griot. Emerging out of a bardic tradition some time between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries in West Africa, the griot (the word is thought to be of Franco-Portuguese derivation) was a key ﬁgure in the formation of dynastic empires among peoples such as the Wolof, Bambara, Fulbe, Soninke and others inhabiting the Malinke cultural ﬁeld. The griot, who would be born into, and trained by, a ‘griot family’, would act as an attendant to the warlords, kings, and (later) to Islamic scholars; he – and, in more recent times, she – would be tasked with the maintenance of family genealogies and histories through such forms as praise-songs and storytelling during social rituals. In return for their services the griot would usually receive valuable gifts such as food, horses, or clothes (or indeed slaves). In a society reliant upon oral transmission, these highly skilled ‘Masters of the Word’ became guarantors of cultural continuity. While elites found in the stories, speeches and music of the griot an opportunity to legitimise their own power, the relationship
between griot and patron was always complex, since the griot could at times make use of their special status (as ‘one who does not work’) to remind the chief of their obligations to the wider community. With the encroachments of Islamisation, followed by Colonialism, and ﬁnally modern Westernisation, the griot’s status and functions naturally changed. As Colonialism dissolved the context of patronage in which the performance of the griot held social meaning, one alternative route for young boys of griot families was to enter the white man’s schools and, from there, to gain power over former rulers by joining the colonial administration as clerks, while others set aside their ancestral heritage to enter into trade (Panzacchi 1994). In more recent times, the impact of broadcast media has created new spaces in which griot praise songs once again have taken on a contested status within the context of political representation and legitimacy (Schulz 1997). Patrice sees in the performative mode of the contemporary griot a template for his
own practice, one that can be deployed within a Shakespearean production not merely by ‘playing the character as a griot’ but, more productively, by ‘adopting the methods of the griot’. In fact, when the function of actor and storyteller become blended, as when he played Gower in Pericles at the Globe Theatre, the distinction between the two becomes to a considerable extent nonexistent. This is an important point for Patrice, sensitive as he is to the accusation of denying the authority of the text:
When we were doing Pericles I proposed this to Kathryn, before she oﬀered me Gower…We had two workshops, and then I did Gower, and she said, ‘Can you do it like that?’ So I did. I went and found a griot instrument. I told Mark Rylance. Mark was OK with this griot coming oﬀ the text, and then straight back into the verse. So that was me taking on a role that was pushing my research…So that was a good platform, and I did it as an African but still Shakespeare was in the frame, and that was very important for me, because I sometimes feel that it goes, ‘Well, yes, but he’s not really doing Shakespeare.’ People still said that, but I was like, no, it’s very Shakespearean, the use of what was happening, I was coming oﬀ the text, then straight back on.