Posts tagged ‘michael billington’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

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29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Need a second opinion?

11 April, 2010

Porn – the Musical

Theatre 503, 10 April – 1 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

It’s fair to assume that few people watch porn for the plot, and it’s best to take the same approach to Porn – the Musical. Erase the phrase “But what about…” from your vocabulary and you’ll find a pretty entertaining hour of musical theatre scattered through the two-hour running time.

The book acknowledges and embraces the leaps of logic and sketchy characterisation typically associated with porn and bad musicals alike. The whole production is suffused with a sense of fun, distilled in a couple of life-affirmingly glorious puns and some knowingly silly choreography (covering naïve Stefan’s (Brendan Cull) modesty with convenient towels and beach balls in ‘Naked on a Sunday’); and the whole cast commit to their roles with devil-may-care abandon.

The lyrics are often stretched a bit to fit the meter or rhyme, and there are too few energetic numbers in the second act, but there are one or two gems – chiefly those featuring hung-but-dumb porn stud Dr Johnny Long, PHD (Alain Terzoli). Johnny’s poppy introductory number is the highlight of the first act, and his entrance peps up an otherwise forgettable first act closer.

Unfortunately the fun stuff is heavily watered down with awkward metatheatrical asides.

First there’s a totally extraneous narrator (Malcolm Galea, one of the writers) who turns up with irksome regularity to recap things we saw two minutes ago, and to summarise thoughts and feelings we really should be discovering through the performances.

Then, throughout, the cast drop out of character to explain scenic devices to one another, a tendency embodied by the Miscellaneous Man (Ahmet Ahmet). He plays all the minor roles, and the other performers keep confusing whom he’s playing when, a joke that relies on jolting the audience out of their engrossment in the show. He even gets a number about how the rest of the company don’t appreciate him.

That’s not even the only purposeless number; the second act starts with the cast berating latecomers through song, and the show ends with a full-cast ballad devoted solely to informing the audience that the show’s over and they can go home.

The problem in a nutshell seems to be that the writers wanted to write about musical theatre – to poke gentle, self-effacing fun at its archetypes, tropes and clichés – but somehow accidentally wrote a musical about porn instead.

Written by Boris Cezek, Malcom Galea, Abigail Guan and Kris Spiteri

Crew includes Paul Robinson (director), Ally Holmes (choreographer/assistant director) and Rachael Canning (designer)

Cast includes Ahmet Ahmet (Miscellaneous Man), David Burt (Marvin), Brendan Cull (Stefan), Malcolm Galea (Narrator), Jody Peach (Jade), Alain Terzoli (Dr Johnny) and Sophia Thierens (Sanddy)

Need a second opinion?

1 February, 2010

Plan D

Tristan Bates Theatre, 25 January – 13 February 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

“[I]t is my intention that the play could be set or imagined in many times and places,” states Palestinian/Irish playwright Hannah Khalil of her new play, Plan D, in the programme notes. To that end the script is stripped of cultural, geographical and historical specificities – but far from imbuing it with universal applicability, this filing-off of the serial numbers makes the play feel generic and immaterial.

The plot is one we’ve all seen before. An apparently stable and contented family is exposed, here by the unexpected arrival of a cousin from a neighbouring village, as a much more fragile edifice than it initially appears. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a partially recycled plot, especially when it’s embedded in a refreshing new context, or accessorised with interesting peripheral events.

But in Plan D the context is deliberately obscured, with only Designer Paul Burgess’s generically Middle Eastern costumes to hint at the Palestinian setting.

Equally, the campaign of terror against which the domestic plot unfolds never feels close enough to be a credible threat to the family’s safety. They’re driven from their home by an anonymous detonation we never hear. The cousin hints at atrocities committed against his own village, but they never materialise in this one. Sarah Weltman’s soundscaping efficiently establishes a sense of place, but not of atmosphere: we never hear the wolves and wild boars the mother insists infest the wood.

Over and over the family tell us that they feel threatened and intimidated, and that the woods are a frightening place to be, but we never see, hear or experience the threat, which makes it difficult to believe the family is experiencing it either. Reported action is a valuable dramatic tool, but theatre is a primarily visual medium, and Plan D definitely tips over into telling, rather than showing.

Without context to colour it, the plot is left bare and unadorned, making it all the more noticeable that we’ve seen it done before. The plight of a single family becomes the focus, obscuring the bigger issue, that their experience is the experience of an entire culture, and that that experience still has yet to come to a conclusion.

Written by Hannah Khalil

Crew includes Chris White (director), Paul Burgess (designer), Sarah Weltman (sound designer) and Sam Moon (lighting designer)

Cast includes George Couyas (Father), Houda Echouafni (Mother), Leonard Fenton (Old Man), Amira Ghazalla (Grandmother), Kamal Kaan (Nephew), Louka Pierides (Daughter) and Richard Sumitro (Cousin)

Need a second opinion?

24 September, 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children

National Theatre, 16 September – 8 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The prospect of staging Brecht’s work on the Olivier Stage is similar to the prospect of flying an aeroplane backwards. Though in theory the vehicle is a tool designed to go where you tell it to, in practice there are certain manoeuvres it’s structurally unsuited to perform.

Brecht dictated that his plays be staged with no frills. But any director given the run of the Olivier can be forgiven for wanting to actually use the facilities on offer. It isn’t yielding to temptation, it’s making the most of a rare opportunity.

Like a glass-panelled clock, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children doesn’t just choose not to conceal its inner workings, it displays them, inviting the audience to marvel at the way the pieces fit together. During one musical number Courage (Fiona Shaw) drags an ASM, already quite visible at the edge of one wing, fully onto the stage, where she dances briefly with the announcer (who also dances little jigs in the scene changes), and during the interval the second act’s placards fly in and out, in and out, as if the winches are being tested.

Not trusting the audience to be satisfied with the real backstage goings-on of a National Theatre production, Warner treats us to a self-conscious, theatricalised version of them. What we see is more bustling and disorganised than backstage in any theatre I’ve worked in; a theatre workers’ self-portrait that magnifies every insignificant pimple.

Revealing the production’s nuts and bolts works as Brecht intended, removing the emotional smokescreen that prevents critical engagement with the play; but theatricalising and calling attention to the backstage business just replaces the smokescreen with blinkers, creating a parallel drama that competes with the more important one centre stage.

Written by Beltolt Brecht (translated by Tony Kushner)

Crew includes Deborah Warner (director), Duke Special (songs) and Mel Mercier (musicscape)

Cast includes Stephen Kennedy (The Chaplain) Martin Marquez (The Cook), Harry Melling (Swiss Cheese), Charlotte Randle (Yvette), Clifford Samuel (Eilif), Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) and Sophie Stone (Kattrin)

Need a second opinion?

21 September, 2009

Punk Rock

Lyric Hammersmith, 3 – 26 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Each scene of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock is abruptly curtailed by an uncomfortably loud belch of feedback and a mangled excerpt from a rock song. By the second hour, each of these sonic interjections sends ripples of uneasy laughter through the stalls. The whole audience is on edge, braced for a shock. Stephens’ clutch of Stockport sixth formers, seen between lessons in Paul Wills’ towering, forbidding onstage library, seem incapable of reining in the impulse to probe and prod and push one another’s boundaries; everyone in the auditorium can tell someone’s going to snap.

By the time the anticipated act of violence occurs, Stephens has laid out a whole smorgasbord of potential contributing factors: unrequited teenage love; body image issues; the spectre of trouble at home; alcohol; an environment in which parents and teachers allow sixth formers to believe a C grade in an English mock means they’ll “never get out of Stockport”; plus Bennet Francis (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a bully whose aloof disregard for those he hurts is worse by far than actual malice, and whose effect on the group debunks with ease that maxim about sticks and stones so beloved of adult authority figures.

Yet Stephens’ real achievement is that despite all the factors presented to us, when our minds reach, as they tend to do, for a simple, catch-all way to explain the tragedy, there isn’t one. It doesn’t even feel satisfactory to conclude, “it was probably a combination of all those things”.

As an examination of the overly simplistic adult tendency to classify teenage behaviour as the direct result of easily identifiable causes like alcohol, pornography and violent media, Punk Rock delivers; though no alternative theory is forthcoming, unless you count, “some people are just broken”.

Stephens’ love of language carries him away into the odd overwrought line, and Director Sarah Frankcom’s love of Stephens’ language leads to characters delivering extended passages straight out front, while the characters they’re supposedly addressing slouch behind them in a symmetrical chorus-line chevron. The script is excellent – funny in a terrifying and guilt-ridden kind of way – and it deserves to be placed centre stage, but such unnatural blocking actually distracts from the words. Or is that too simple, too immediate an explanation…?

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer) and Pete Rice (sound designer)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Ghazaleh Golpira (Lucy Francis), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Bennet Francis), Harry McEntire (Chadwick Meade), Jessica Raine (Lilly Cahill), Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey) and Sophie Wu (Cissy Franks)

Need a second opinion?

31 May, 2009

All’s Well That End Well

National Theatre, 28 May – 30 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Marianne Elliott (director) and Rae Smith (designer)

Cast includes Oliver Ford Davies (King of France), Clare Higgins (The Countess of Rossillion), Conleth Hill (Parolles), George Rainsford (Bertram) and Michelle Terry (Helena)

Need a second opinion?

8 May, 2009

The Contingency Plan

Bush Theatre, 22 April – 6 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

If anthropogenic climate change is the greatest challenge currently facing mankind, then right now Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre is the most important artwork in the country.

Either individually or combined, On the Beach and Resilience – the independent but complementary constituent plays of Waters’ double bill – trumpet an uncompromising challenge to conventional, optimistic projections regarding the results of our effect on the climate.

In On the Beach, glaciologist Will Paxton (Geoffrey Streatfeild) returns home to Norfolk after an extended stint in Antarctica, to present his new girlfriend Sarika (Stephanie Street) to his parents, and to confront his reclusive father Robin (Robin Soans), who gave up glaciology two decades ago to observe sea birds on the salt marshes.

In Resilience, Sarika likewise presents Will to the Ministry for Climate Change, where he faces off against Colin (also Robin Soans), the colleague that discredited his father, in an attempt to convince the new Conservative government to legislate according to his own radically pessimistic predictions of coastal flooding in Britain.

If you can see both (highly recommended), see On the Beach first. If you can’t, see Resilience: though its focus is squarely on the policy makers and not those affected first hand by the crisis, it contains not only the best laughs (mostly courtesy of David Bark-Jones’ dangerously clueless Minister), but also the most important science.

Will’s solution is that there is no solution; there’s nothing left to do but retreat inland and abandon the coast to the North Sea. Before Resilience’s interval he reels off a list of draconian-sounding measures, including compulsory purchase and demolition of non-carbon neutral homes. Waters and his agent are adamant that the science used in the play is sound and rigorously up to date.

Downers don’t come much bigger, but neither play ever ceases to entertain, even when Soans’ characters show their similarities by breaking out the visual aids. Hard science and the accompanying pessimism are counterbalanced by dramatic flair in both the text and the performances. While the big issue naturally and rightly dominates, Will’s relationship with his father gets nearly as much exposure; and Street, along with Susan Brown as both Will’s mother and Tessa, Minister for Resilience, fly the flag for women finding footholds in predominantly male arenas. Soans’ portrayal of two similar but distinct obsessives, one comical, one eventually somewhat sinister, particularly stands out.

The only ray of hope in Waters’ predicted stormfront is that both plays are set a few years in the future. If the science is as solid as he claims, we can only hope the policy makers don’t greet him as Chris greets Will – at first jovially, then later bitterly, as “Nostradamus”.

Written by Steve Waters

Crew includes Tamara Harvey (director, Resilience), Michael Longhurst (director, On the Beach), Tom Scutt (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting designer) and Emma Laxton (sound designer)

Cast includes David Bark-Jones (Chris), Susan Brown (Jenny in On the Beach/Tessa in Resilience), Robin Soans (Robin in On the Beach/Colin in Resilience), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Will) and Stephanie Street (Sarika)

Need a second opinion?

8 April, 2009

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)

Need a second opinion?