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Theatre review: Death and the King's Horseman

Is death the start of the human journey or its end? Is mortality a transition from one sphere of our existence to another – the recurring cycle of life, death and rebirth? From Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka’s versatile prose emerges a mournful piece of theatre, which isn’t in fear of difficult themes of life and death, tradition and loyalty. These are profound questions and the sacred Yoruba traditions are the raw material from which they are explored.

Written in 1975 – and with comedy, farce and stinging caricatures of British colonials – an intriguing dramatisation of the Yoruba worldview is elegantly portrayed.

The acclaimed writer emphasises the solemnity of this piece, above the obvious critique of British colonialism, but the target is easy to hit and Director Rufus Norris’ visually brilliant production doesn’t miss. As for the ‘whitening up’ of Black actors – it’s unnecessary – the colonialists are already parodied as unsophisticated and superficial by lacerating dialogue.

Based on an actual event in 1940s Nigeria, Soyinka’s rarely performed play dramatises the ritual suicide of the King of Oyo’s ceremonial Horseman Elesin Oba [a towering Nonso Anozie].  The dilemma facing the Horseman as he prepares to accompany the deceased monarch on his journey to the afterlife is shared by the all-powerful District Officer Pilkings [Lucian Msamati].

With five perfectly fused scenes on the Olivier’s spacious stage, dance, [choreography/movement by Javier de Frutos] song and drumming integrate smoothly to create an atmospheric vibe depicting the vitality and rhythms of the Yoruba culture. But it soothes and enrapt audience into a false sense of security, a comfort zone of complacency.

Portrayals of the British and Yoruba traditions are provocative – one venerated and celebrated, the other parodied. The drama takes place in two distinct environments. The vibrant market place – an arena where women guard traditions – symbolised by a serene Iyaloja. By contrast the refined setting of expatriate colonialists disguise the arrogant racism of their ‘civilising mission’.

As tension develop there are several confrontations – Elesin and Iyaloja [an excellent Claire Benedict], Pilkings and his wife Jane [Jenny Jules with evocative, exaggerated gestures]; Elesin’s son Olunde [Kobna Holbrook-Smith] and Jane – all strong characters with substance and depth.

Soyinka alternates his prose deftly – from Shakespearian verses, lyrical, rich in imagery of the people’s customs, to that of a 1930s style melodrama.  It’s somewhat difficult to absorb, but a tribute to the accomplished cast that they don’t struggle with it at all. In any case it’s balance by hilarious scenes – especially the colonialists’ masked ball and the Market Women’s humiliation of servile Native Policeman Sergeant Amusa [Derek Ezenagu].

As the show advance to its tragic end, Olunde’s fascinating character becomes critical. Handpicked by the colonialists; sent, against his father’s wishes, to study in England, he has of course adopted elements of British culture, but not at the expense of his own heritage.

Soyinka’s work stands the test of time and this excellent production should take its place amongst the classics.

Shaun Hutchinson for

Death and the King’s Horseman @ The National Theatre until 17 June

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