House of Ife at Bush Theatre
The latest commissioned work to be staged at Bush Theatre, House of Ife is a passionate drama with plenty of food for thought. British-Ethiopian playwright Beru Tessem’s play includes great debut performances from the cast, and it is a highly relatable piece.
Ife’s funeral is taking place, his siblings setting up the reception. Tensions are high and heightened by youngest brother Yosi (Michael Workeye) whose apathetic behaviour is contradicted by his fast-talking mannerisms. Ife’s twin sister, Aida (Karla-Simone Spence in an excellent portrayal of loss) is consumed with guilt, joined by her staunch, mature sister Tsion (a convincing Yohanna Ephrom). Tessema has done a great job in creating such realistic depictions of their complex relationships, some of which are semi-autobiographical, the writer having been raised in London via Ethiopia.
There’s a sense of Henrik Ibsen about House of Ife, a drama that is hovering on the edge of collapse, an inch away from exploding, which Tessema has achieved well, with good direction by Lynette Linton.
Upon their father Solomon’s (Jude Akuwudike) arrival from Addis Ababa, having deserted them to marry again and start another family, the trio of siblings must try to fix their relationship with him. Akuwudike’s performance conjures anger and empathy, the actor provoking the audience remarkably well: on the one hand we blame him for his neglect, on the other, one can see him trying to make amends – but at what cost?
The play is rich in its language – Tessema clearly appreciates the variety of dialects in London. The cultural dissonance is relatable, as well as generational rifts and the migrant experience. One of the most intriguing aspects of the piece is how well it explores the theme of belonging. Aida, like her twin, Ife, was born in Ethiopia and brought to England for a better life, while Tsion and Yosi were born in London. The thread that connects them all with Ethiopia is the yearning that draws them back, even if it is a place they’ve only been to once; the descriptions are particularly beautiful and imbued with nostalgia.
The siblings’ mother, Meron (Sarah Priddy), gives an emotionally riveting performance, grieving for her son and the end of her marriage to Solomon, which resulted in raising their children alone without any financial help from him. The pacing is good; one feels a dramatic turn approaching, and it’s a big one – perhaps too big, verging on the melodramatic in the play’s denouement, and feeling a little overwhelming with the prolonged shouting and characters talking over one another.
However, Tessema’s play is alive, steeped in realism and portrayed with very strong performances, making it hard to forget.
House of Ife is at Bush Theatre from 18th May until 11th June 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.