Death & the King’s Horseman

In Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play Death and the King’s Horseman, based on real events in Nigeria in 1945, and receiving its London premiere as part of the Travelex £10 Tickets season (the British premiere was at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 1990, directed by Phyllida Lloyd), the dead Yoruba king’s horseman prepares to join his master on the other side.

But Elesin’s progress to the grave is hampered by the attractions of a girl in the marketplace, while the colonial powers seek to defer his ritual suicide for political reasons. With the return of Elesin’s medical student son from England, the outcome is both muddled and hastened.

That massively imposing actor Nonso Anozie, Cheek by Jowl’s Othello, unavoidably plays up the parallels with that role, and director Rufus Norris invokes memories of his NT staging of David Eldridge’s Market Boy in the colourful opening sequence of street bartering life, women and traders mingling before clothing Elesin in his tribal robes.

Soyinka insists that his play must suggest the music from the abyss of this transition, and Norris and his designer Katrina Lindsay dutifully crowd the stage with totemic statues, human haystacks and a whole series of processional dance numbers choreographed by Javier de Frutos.

Most strikingly, the colonials are played by black actors with painted-on white masks, a satirical alienation device first employed by Jean Genet in The Blacks but curiously effective in reinforcing here an idea of the play being a mysterious and not quite real masque. There are two exceptional performances in the roles of the district officer and his wife by Lucian Msamati (recently a remarkable African Arturo Ui at the Lyric Hammersmith) and Jenny Jules (the first black Ruth in The Homecoming at the Almeida last year).

But the play has never struck me as the masterpiece it is often claimed to be, and Norris’ production, ignoring Soyinka’s “no interval” injunction, looks both strenuously over-busy and under-invested with dramatic content.

When Anozie goes into his trance dance, is he hopping on red cinders? If not, what exactly is being strewn on the stage? The production is full of such bafflements. Despite Anozie’s best efforts, we’re never entirely sure what he’s thinking. Claire Benedict, as in the Manchester premiere, is a powerful voice of doom and gloom, and Giles Terera is delightful as the praise singer who leads the dance and the horseman to his interrupted fate.

– Michael Coveney