The first stage adaptation of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn’s novel about an African prince enslaved in Surinam, appeared in 1695, just seven years after the book. While this enormously successful version cut out the novel’s opening African scenes, the Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele has emphasized them in his new adaptation, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and mounted here by Theatre for a New Audience. The first act of Bandele’s Oroonoko takes place in Behn’s mythical kingdom of Coramantien. He has fleshed out Behn’s scenario considerably, rendering the Coramantien court as a snake pit of shifting alliances to rival Elsinore or Milan. Perhaps Bandele’s most inspired addition is the unctuous counselor Orombo (impeccably portrayed by John Douglas Thompson), who gradually morphs from comic relief to formidable villainy. Bandele’s linguistic vigor is well matched by director Kate Whoriskey’s vivid production. Without recourse to elaborate sets, Whoriskey and her cast conjure vibrant images of Oroonoko’s violent and majestic African environs.
The play’s second act falters, though. Compressing a great deal of plot into little more than an hour, the scenes set in the plantations of Surinam leave motivations—and sometimes even the course of events—obscure. While Coramantien featured striking supporting characters, in Surinam we meet only the blandly villainous Byam (Graeme Malcolm) and the even more blandly virtuous Trefry (David Barlow). The play’s tragic resolution comes as more of a melodramatic shock than an inevitability, leaving Oroonoko reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s less successful efforts—a Pericles that tried to become Othello.