Review: House of Ife at Bush Theatre, London

Wednesday 4th May 2022 at Bush Theatre, London.


Reviewer: Maygan Forbes

How do you approach the death of a loved one when it’s shrouded in shame? House of Ife thrusts us into the world of a family mourning the loss of son and brother Ife. Each family member deals with the pain differently and the finger points at everyone to blame for his death. Written by Beru Tessema and directed by Lynette Linton, this play wonderfully juxtaposes tradition with cultural clashes that determine the extent in which Ife’s life is celebrated.

Ife is survived by his three siblings, twin sister Aida (played by Karla-Simone Spence), his brother Yosi (Michael Workeye) and sister Meron (Sarah Priddy). The matriarch of the family Tsion (played by Yohanna Ephrem) is the glue holding everyone together in the wake of Ife’s death, the bond is resolute but the arrival of their estranged father (played by Jude Akuwudike) threatens to tear the family apart.

From beginning to end House of Ife had me engrossed, when dealing with the subject matter of death in a family, it’s a hard line to tread however this play does it right. Making sure to be sensitive to Ethiopian culture practices, Linton boldly displays the fragility of loss and grief.

Set & Costumer Designer Frankie Bradshaw uses the stage in such a powerful way, almost like a glass house the audience are separated into two sections and sat directly opposite one another. The stage is presented in the middle and gives the illusion that the audience are the spectators looking in, and the glass walls can come tumbling down at any given moment. When the audience enter, you are greeted with the sounds of The Abyssians and the potent scent of an incense stick burning – it is almost overwhelming and lingers in the air for the duration of the play. It’s a carefully intimate touch that contributes further to the notion that we are being invited into their space and their vulnerabilities are about to be exposed.

Drug abuse is tackled delicately in House of Ife, it’s revealed to the audience later on as Ife’s cause of death and it’s truly heartbreaking. But the family dance around the taboo issue due to the disgrace and humiliation caused, there is a something else that remains concealed in the family however. A heavier burden they all carry – guilt. The guilt is never really discussed though, and instead fingers are pointed and the blame is laid on whoever is the closest target. Ife’s twin sister Aida wears the guilt heavy on her person, unlike the other characters on stage – she does not run from it. She lets it wear her to the point that eventually it starts to eat away and consume her.

Simone Spence is wonderful in this role, the pain and the separation is felt heavily. Her acting is the pulse of the play, when she cries, it’s as if a heartbeat is stopping on stage. Aida continues to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for the loss of her brother, as she sinks further into co-dependency and alcoholic disillusion she becomes further detached from the reality of what is happening around her. The other siblings are left to pick through the pieces and salvage whatever they can. The family dynamics are real and raw.

Michael Workeye as Yosi is hilarious, I loved his character. Funny but also wildly adorable, as the baby of the family he is used to getting away with taking liberties. But he also provides a great support network that is desperately needed. Each character frequently slips off into a solo dream sequence on stage, where they expose their vulnerabilities to the audience. Movement Director Kane Husbands does a fantastic job in crafting a flow on stage that feels organic and natural, but also intensely personal. As if we are watching the characters spill out their diary entries in physical movement.  

The acting is gold standard, you can tell that every cast member put their heart and soul into their performances and shone. No beat was missed and the synergy on stage was incredible. The bond was felt between them and you feel immersed in a story of a family dealing with grief and pain. I really recommend you watch this play whilst its on at The Bush Theatre, it’s wonderful in every way and you become so attached to the story the ending almost doesn’t feel real.

House of Ife plays Bush Theatre until June 11th 2022 and you can find tickets here.

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