Theatre review: Feast, Old Vic London

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FEAST unashamedly bills itself as an “epic” production, and in many ways this adjective is not hubristic.

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It’s an all-out, bells-and-whistles show for the World Stages London project that aims to encompass West Africa-originating Yoruba culture and its centuries-long worldwide diaspora, initially due to the slave trade. It’s less a play and more a performance experience, in which the design, music and choreography prove far more accomplished than contributions from five playwrights from five countries.

There’s only one problem: so taken up is the piece with its own impressive showmanship that it forgets to tell us very much about Yoruba culture.

Director Rufus Norris whizzes us through stylish snapshots of scenes, places and times; they are all immaculately designed and choreographed, but with precious little cumulative heft.

We start in Nigeria in 1713, with three adult sisters heading to a family feast. Yet slavers are in the area and soon designer Katrina Lindsay is projecting the contents of these perfidious men’s ledgers – the name, age, sex of each “possession” – over the bodies of the cast as they stand in a silent, sombre line.

It’s one of a number of startling instances where design and silence work best for the narrative; another comes with the lunch-counter protests in the Deep South of America in 1960. The image of nine black actors sitting wordlessly on diner stools says it all.

How did we get from there to here? Well, we stopped in Brazil in the late 19th century, then fast-forwarded to a Cuban prostitute in 2008, before ending with a young black athlete in today’s London.

A Feast for the senses, but one that leaves you feeling strangely empty soon after.