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Old pals act out an African royal tragedy; Philip Key Arts Diary.

Byline: Philip Key

IT was when actor/director Femi Elufowoju Jnr brought his company's show Bonded to Liverpool's Everyman Theatre that he ran into an old friend.

He and Adewale Ajadi had been fellow law students in Nigeria.

But it wasn't just to rekindle an old friendship that Ajadi tackled Elufowoju backstage after the show - he had a story to tell.

The result of that meeting two years ago has led to a new play, Abyssinia, which sold out during its four-week London run and - aptly - opens at the Everyman tonight.

Elufowoju, who founded the West African theatre company Tiata Fahodzi, says his old legal friend, now a businessman, had been fascinated with the company's style and the way it worked.

"He asked me if I knew of this story buried in the bowels of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

"He told me of this young Ethiopian prince who came to England when he was eight years old and died while under the protection of Queen Victoria at the age of 18. He was buried among English monarchs."

Elufowoju was fascinated enough to commission a treatment from his friend and investigate the story himself. And, sure enough, he found the young man's burial place at Windsor.

The idea had come at an appropriate time for the director whose company Tiata Fahodzi (it means Theatre of the Emancipated in a mixture of Nigerian and Ghanaian) had championed West African theatre and themes both in its London base and on tour across Britain.

"But we had begun doing work that suggested universal themes and we took time off to concentrate on a new direction."

While maintaining its African interest, it was decided to develop work that "spoke for all repressed voices, not just ethnic minorities".

The play about Prince Alemayehu seemed perfect.

Ajadi's treatment was fascinating but needed a lot of work, says Elufowoju.

"He was a great weaver of words but fairly inexperienced in terms of drama and structure.

"So we worked on it as a company, workshopping it at the National Theatre.

The drama as it is now performed is set in both the present and the past, the present involving a campaign for the return to Ethiopia of treasures taken by the British in the 19th Century. It was this raid in 1868 which led to the suicide of the Ethiopian king and his son's voyage to England: there he was to have a profound effect on Queen Victoria and it was she who, after his death, ordered his burial in the castle grounds.

The drama is being presented as part of Black History Month, another happy coincidence according to director Elufowoju.

"It wasn't written for that intention but it fits in very nicely as part of our tour."

While Elufowoju continues his freelance writing and acting career (the latter including regular appearances in the BBC Radio 4 comedy series A Guide to Time-Wasting), he is devoting his special attention to his theatre company, recently awarded three-year touring funding by the Arts Council.

The next show is planned to be a musical based on the life of Sammy Davis Junior.

"He was a one-eyed, Afro-American Jewish entertainer whose ambition was suppressed, not on merit but because of his background. Young ambitious people growing up in Britain have many obstacles placed in their way and Sammy is a great role model of a man who overcame these things."

Abyssinia is at the Liverpool Everyman tonight and tomorrow.
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 22, 2001
Words:578
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