“Just do you,” says a character towards the end of Feast. But how do you know who the real you is? In essence, that is the driving question of this spectacular new piece of theatre, which spans three centuries, explores the spread of the Yoruba people, culture and beliefs across the world and examines the way the very flexibility at the heart of the belief system has sustained it. Starting in 18th-century Nigeria, the piece comes right up to the present day, asking what this extraordinarily resilient and adaptable belief system, with its willingness to embrace chaos and its emphasis on finding out your “Ori” or “inner head”, has to say now.
It starts with a journey to a feast and finishes with several celebratory meals, but the title of the piece also drives the style, which is indeed a feast of words, music, image and dance, deploying five writers (Yunior Garcia Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield and Gbolahan Obisesan). It could be chaotic – it isn’t: Rufus Norris, directing this Young Vic-Royal Court co-production, does a magnificent job in embracing danger, pulling together the disparate elements (including a live chicken) and keeping order without losing the playful, celebratory feel of the occasion. The piece is dazzling in places and spliced with wit. But ambition holds it back in the end. The very scope of the piece prevents it from delving deeply into the significant historical moments it depicts, so the dramatised scenes themselves too often feel rather undercooked and stilted.
Broadly speaking, the piece follows three female half-deities, whose journey to a feast is thwarted by the slave trade in Nigeria. Scattered through the world, they re-emerge in different women through the ages. So we see an elderly slave woman in 19th-century Brazil, troubled by her new freedom; we see two sisters join a Civil Rights protest in the US. The scenes are fascinating, but each is rich enough to merit deeper, more detailed treatment.
Where the show excels is in blending music, movement and image to express the shifting and sustaining power of belief. In one deeply moving sequence the cast process slowly, singing, as Lysander Ashton’s projections play over them, depicting a diagram of a slave ship. We hear the musical links between that tune and the freedom song sung by Civil Rights protesters in a later scene. Such stunning scenes, powerfully delivered by the astonishingly versatile cast, best embody the uplifting spirit of both the culture and the show.