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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Nonso Anozie/Ph: Alastair Muir

For the first half hour of Nigerian Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, I was slowly losing my will to live.

Despite the fact that the vast Olivier stage was awash with a colourful assortment of characters belonging to Nigeria's Yoruba tribe, what -to the accompaniment of traditional African drum-beats - they were doing or saying eluded me.

Trying to penetrate the ritualistic mumbo-jumbo in accents as clotted as some of Soyinka's poetry, I eventually gathered that, following the recent death of the king of Oyo, preparations were underway for a ritual suicide.

The victim is Elesin, (Nonso Anozie), the king's horseman, who, apart from sacrificing his own life, must make sure that the king's favorite horse and dog journey with him to the other side.

But just when I thought there was no escape and that I was trapped for the duration in this uninviting, largely incomprehensible world of African ritual and superstition, the situation improved dramatically.

The relentless beat of the African drums gave way to a Charleston as a pair of black actors wearing white paint on their faces suddenly appear as district officer Simon (Lucian Msamati) and his wife Jane (Jenny Jules), a British couple billeted in Nigeria in 1943.

From this point Soyinka examines the irrevocable clash between two vastly different cultures as the colonial whites attempt to superimpose their way of life on a civilization literally thousands of miles apart from their own.

The subject matter is hardly new or startling. But as attempts by local white officials to halt Elesin's ritual suicide hit their stride, so does the play.

Borrowing from both Shakespeare and Greek tragedy Soyinka melds moments of robust hilarity (especially in the obvious enjoyment he takes in satirizing the manners and mores of the English) with gut-wrenching drama, as in the deaths of both Elesin and his culturally conflicted son Olunde (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith).

After that deadly first half hour, director Rufus Norris, inventively assisted by designer Katrina Lindsay, lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Ian Dickinson, keeps the narrative buoyant.

The all-black cast perform with exuberance and passion , insuring that Soyinka's familiar message about the tragic consequences of imperial interference comes powerfully across.


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