Death and the King’s Horseman

National Theatre, 8 April – 17 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Staging Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman as the second of 2009’s Travelex £10 Tickets shows could prove to be an extraordinarily prescient decision by Nicholas Hytner. The first, Monsterist Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, was a risk that predictably triggered reactionary accusations of institutional racism directed at Hytner’s National. Soyinka’s play takes a more widely accepted stance on Britain and race, namely that the treatment of Africans by white British colonialists was condemnable. Though Death and the King’s Horseman was programmed well before England People Very Nice opened and the accusations began, in context it feels like a comforting reassurance that the National Theatre does not condone racism.

The play, written in the 70s and set in the 40s, hasn’t been staged in Britain for nearly 20 years, and never before in London. This could be something to do with its message no longer being exactly box-fresh.

When the colonial District Officer, a whited-up Lucian Msamati, hears that the King of Oyo is to be buried and his Elesin (Horseman) is expected to accompany him via ritual suicide, he decrees that This Will Not Do and – through a well-meaning but heavy-handed mission of mercy – risks fundamentally unbalancing the Yoruba way of life. While regularly staging our country’s dirty colonial history is a necessary reminder that the stories of those oppressed need no longer stay buried, the idea that colonialism was wrong is no longer revelatory.

Fortunately, an examination of pig-headed white ignorance is not all the play has going for it. The Elesin, a rogueish and commanding Nonso Anozie, has his own doubts about his assigned path.

The Yoruba require the veneration of their descendants to validate their afterlife, but the Elesin’s son has been sent away to England by the District Officer to study medicine. In life, his (hereditary) position affords him the best of everything; in death he faces the ignominy of the childless, but to live on after his king’s burial is to sit with arms folded as his world careens towards a cliff-edge.

His veiled appeals for guidance, in dialogue with his Praise Singer (Giles Terera, whose clowning steals his every scene) and Iyaloja, matriarch of the market (played authoritatively by Claire Benedict), share a ritual quality with the majority of Director Rufus Norris’ ensemble production. Every point in the debate is laden with allegory and folklore, every utterance accompanied by deliberate gestures that confer a wise and premeditated significance. Ensemble movement, chants and drumming imbue the production by turns with carnival exuberance and funereal solemnity.

Whether within or despite its context in the National’s programme – whether or not staging it is Hytner’s insurance policy against Richard Bean’s crowd-baiting – Death and the King’s Horseman remains an intrinsically poetic and thematically multifaceted work. Whatever the circumstances that brought it to the Olivier, it’s very welcome there.

Written by Wole Soyinka

Crew includes Rufus Norris (director) and Katrina Lindsay (designer)

Cast includes Nonso Anozie (Elesin), Claire Benedict (Iyaloja), Lucian Msamati (District Officer) and Giles Terera (Praise Singer)

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