Death and the King’s Horseman @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Nonso Anozie, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jenny Jules, Lucian Msamati, David Ajala, Medina Ajikawo, Sarah Amankwah, Claire Benedict, Robert Eugene, Derek Ezenagu, Karlina Grace, Hazel Holder, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Tony James-Andersson, Gemma McFarlane-Edmond, Coral Messam, Rex Obano, Anthony Ofoegbu, Demi Oyediran, Daniel Poyser, Jason Rowe, Seun Shote, Giles Terera, David Webber

directed by
Rufus Norris
The Nigerian playwright, novelist and poet Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first black African to do so. But his plays are shamefully neglected in Britain, even though he started writing them when a student at Leeds University in the late 1950s and later went on to work at the Royal Court.

The National Theatre now finally provides a welcome first chance for Londoners to see perhaps his greatest play Death and the Horseman, written in 1975.

The huge Olivier stage holds a 30-plus all-black cast in a spectacularly exotic and entertaining production by Rufus Norris.

Based on a real incident in Oyo in 1946, but backdated a couple of years to the Second World War, the play centres around chief Elesin, Horseman of the recently deceased King, who is due to commit ritual suicide so that he can guide the spirit of the King to a peaceful afterlife.
But come the day in question, Elesin’s plans are stalled first by his insistence on taking another bride who has caught his eye in the marketplace, and then by the British colonial District Officer Simon Pilkings who decides to stop this ‘barbaric’ practice. The foreign interference in this native Yoruba religious rite threatens to provoke rioting by the local people convinced that their king has been dishonoured and the delicate balance of the life/death cycle destroyed.

Soyinka has not only written a philosophical play about the clash of cultures and the dangers of European colonial powers enforcing their values on Africa, but also examines the complex Yoruba attitudes towards the ancestors, the living and the unborn, in which the past, present and future form a more cohesive continuum than in Western civilization. However, the plays poetic mythologizing seems to dodge the issue of whether fundamental human rights and values are merely relative to cultural context or are universal in application.

It is not clear if Elesin has failed to kill himself of his own accord or if he has been prevented from doing so. His own people, represented by the priest-like Praise Singer and the ‘Mother’ of the market, regard him as having betrayed his duty to the King and their community, while his son Olunde, just returned from studying in England as arranged by Pilkings and his well-meaning but nave wife Jane, also feels ashamed of Elesin, himself racked with guilt. The moral ambiguities give the play extra richness.

What may be lacking in dramatic tension is made up for in Norris’s highly imaginative staging brimful of beguiling movement, colour and sound. The market scenes are awash with sensuously free rhythms, contrasting with the satirical scenes involving the British administrators (played by black actors ‘whited up’) which are extremely funny as parodies of the clipped-accented, leg-crossing, inhibited colonials, blinkered by racial prejudice.

The dazzling costumes and evocative set design by Katrina Lindsay, with market wares suspended on ropes above the stage suggesting a busy material life and haunting totemic statues hinting at the spirit world beyond, is backed by highly effective lighting from Paule Constable. Ian Dickinson’s atmospheric sound complements Michael Henry’s pulsating music (with drummers playing live on stage), while Javier de Frutos’s animated choreography exerts a seductive charm.

As Elesin, the bear-like figure of Nonso Anozie (who has played Othello for Cheek by Jowl) bestrides the stage with huge charisma, but charts his decline from confident pride to broken remorse movingly. Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules are hilarious as the conventionally middle-class Pilkings couple, but manage to hint at other aspects behind the caricature. Giles Terera Iyaloja is a beguiling Praise Singer reminding Elesin of his duty, while Claire Benedict’s ‘Mother’ of the market is an impressively authoritative figure holding sway over the other women, and Elesin Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s besuited Olunde defends his own culture with both intellect and passion.

It’s great to see Soyinka’s fascinating Death and the Horseman given such a dynamic production. With their bridging of African and European, traditional and modern theatrical tropes, and their unusual mixture of tragic drama and satirical comedy, his plays deserve to be staged here much more frequently.

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