Based on real events that took place in Nigeria in 1946, Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman is set three years earlier in a hot, dusty market place, where the action of the Second World War is a distant world away.
It is the 30th day following the King of Oya’s death. His dog and favourite horse have been slain and now his horseman, Elesin (Nonso Anozie), must carry out his privileged duty and perform his ritual suicide in order that he may follow his master to the land of his forefathers to save him from a lone afterlife, lost and wandering in the darkness. This is a joyous occasion and the market place is a blur of rich colours as the community dances and sings around Elesin, flattering his ego and fulfilling his last earthly desires. But the British colonial officer in charge of Oya (played by Lucian Msamati), unsettled by the relentless drumming drifting in the wind, discovers the plan. Horrified by Elesin’s intention and the risk of upsetting a visiting British prince, he sets about stopping what he believes to be a barbaric ritual, throwing the balance and fate of the community into jeopardy.
With as many dramatic twists and fatalistic premonitions as a Greek tragedy, the play’s language is similarly rich, with the physically commanding Elesin, the flamboyant Praise Singer (Giles Terera) and Iyaloja (Claire Benedict) – the ‘Mother’ and lead woman of the market – conversing and debating in poetic language, talking in metaphors and telling fables in a dialogue that takes some acclimatising to. In contrast, the colonials, tucked away safely from the villagers at the top of the hill, speak in blunt, straightforward terms with clipped British accents. Spurting outrageous racist clichés, the all-black cast takes on these roles with their faces painted white and dressed in Western fashions that, next to the brightly coloured traditional dress of the villagers, seem dull and ridiculous.
Death And The King’s Horseman is not simply a play addressing the clash between two cultures. It opens a debate on the right to intervene in something you cannot understand, as well as questioning Elesin’s intention in the first place. Whilst clearly damming the actions undertaken by the visitors in the community, the play challenges the views of the audience, primarily pushing them to acknowledge the idea that death can be seen as a wonderful beginning and an honour, without the need for grief.
Richly atmospheric – whether the scene is one of celebration filled with colours, dancing and singing, or more sinister with the darkness, shadows and rolling of eyes when Elesin enters the ritual trance – the play commands the entire space of the Olivier’s stage and transports the audience to a land rich in traditions, but in the suffocating grip of a stranger’s control.
Death And The King’s Horseman plays at the National Theatre Olivier as part of the Travelex £10 season and is booking until 17 June.