THEATRE REVIEW: Death and the Kings Horseman (@ The National Theatre)

Review: Death and the Kings Horseman
By Tola Ositelu

A play by former Poet Laureate Wole Soyinka, Death and the Kings Horseman is a clash-of-culture tale set in the land of the Yoruba people of western Nigeria circa early 1940s.

The Alafin, King of the Oyo people, dies after a lengthy reign. Tradition has it that his Horseman, Elesin (a dedicated performance by Nonso Anozie) is to commit ritual suicide to commemorate the death of his king and join the monarch on the other side. As Elesin prepares for his demise, he appropriates a new wife from her formerly betrothed and enjoys the lavish send-off the villagers bestow on him. However, colonial misgivings about the practice in the form of the District Officer, Simon Pilkings and his socialite wife, Jane, threaten to scupper Elesin’s plans before he can say his final goodbye.

deathofthekings_149fzxzdaHorseman… is a feast for the eyes from the moment the large ensemble cast dance, weave and glide their way onto the stage. The set is colourful and lush; opulent without being distasteful or over-indulgent. The show bursts to life with some energetic choreography, singing and light-hearted banter amongst the characters, the cast looking like they are having a genuinely good time.

However things soon grind to a halt as the dialogue between Elesin and his Praise Singer (played with gusto, despite a dubious Nigerian accent, by Giles Terera) becomes dangerously turgid. Their conversations are over-laden with adages and allegories. I know we Nigerians have a penchant for figurative language but too much of it becomes tiring on the ears. My eyes glazed over for a sizeable chunk of the first few scenes of Horseman… as it seemed that the play was falling victim to Soyinka’s verbose, slightly pompous writing-style, its pace being lost in an abundance of language.

Thankfully there are a few sonic interludes to break things up courtesy of the musical director Michael Henry. The multi-talented cast treat us to some acappella singing complete with delicious harmonies.

The pace really picks up with the introduction of Mr and Mrs Pilkings, played by the superb Lucien Msamati and one of London’s most hard-working and versatile actors, Jenny Jules. Turning the perverse practice of ‘blacking up’ a la Al Jolson and Laurence Olivier’s ‘Othello’ on its head, Jules and Msamati ‘whiten up’ to play the expat couple, face paint and all. Mr Pilkings no-nonsense approach to everything from his professional duties to his wife lends to more punchy, engaging dialogue.

soyinka-bwPerhaps the contrast between the Pilkings’ snappy conversations and Elesin’s long winded musings is a very deliberate move by Soyinka to highlight how differently Nigerians use the English language from the Brits. Comic relief comes in the form of the Pilkings Nigerian police officer/lackey of choice, Amusa played to buffoon perfection by Derek Ezenagu. There’s also a delightful moment of levity when some of the village women parody the phatic conversation that goes on at colonial social gatherings.

The perennial battle between Nigerian tradition and its fight for survival in the face of colonial imposition is embodied in the relationship between Olunde, Elesin’s son and his erstwhile benefactors the Pilkings, who sent him to England to study medicine much to the consternation of the Horseman.

The discourse between Olunde and Mrs Pilkings on his return is the play’s tour de force, a microcosm of the prevailing theme. Mrs Pilkings expresses disappointment that Olunde’s time in England has not caused him to reject the rituals of his native land. Olunde retorts that the colonial powers have ‘no respect for what they do not understand’ and compares his father’s ritual suicide to the so-called noble deaths of young men sent to the battle front during the Second World War. Olunde observes Mrs Pilking’s attempts to justify why she feels there’s a difference, as another example of British hypocrisy masquerading as tact.

Horseman… presents a very cogent case against colonial interference and the far-reaching damage it caused to native custom. I couldn’t fault the legitimacy of these sentiments. However, the fact that all traditions pre-dating colonialism were afforded virtue by the play regardless of their merits-or lack thereof- did not sit well with me. Every culture has practices that it would be best to jettison, and not everything in the name of Afrocentricity is automatically beneficial. Horseman… doesn’t really endeavour to put forward a more balanced argument. Elesin’s failure to commit suicide immediately preceding his arrest by Mr Pilkings cronies is met by the utmost disdain by his mother. I didn’t think Elesin’s understandable trepidation over topping himself warrants the accusations of treachery to his race that are levied at him.

deathandthekingshorseman-redcarnationonly_596_19087810_0_0_7030199_300Horseman… is truly a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and it would be difficult not to make reference to the Bard, particularly in regard to its very sombre climax. Despite getting off to a slow start and the over-simplification of the arguments it presents, once Horseman… gathers momentum it has an appeal and potency that is difficult to resist.

Death and the King’s Horseman runs at the National Theatre from May 4th – June 17th, 2009. Start time: 7:30 pm, unless otherwise indicated.

Performances can be booked by phone (+44 (0) 20 7 452 3000 Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 8.00pm), in person and online (click to book).