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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Death and the King's Horseman
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2009

The first twenty minutes or so of Wole Soyinka's 1975 play raise some barriers of style and structure that may make it hard for you to be drawn in. But stick with it as things get considerably more accessible and inviting, to find a play that makes its points inventively and entertainingly.

Soyinka's subject is culture clash, specifically between Nigerians in the 1940s and their British overlords, seen from the Nigerian perspective. His moral is that those who do not understand a culture - and make no effort to - must not be quick to judge it by their own standards.

When a tribal king dies, tradition requires his horse and dog - and the sub-chief designated as his horseman - to die with him. This is so far from being a burden that the horseman goes eagerly to the fulfilment of his lifetime of service. But the British interfere in what they see as barbarism, leading to a much greater tragedy than the one they tried to stop.

Rufus Norris's production begins with an overlong prelude of native dance, leading to an exposition scene written entirely in self-conscious metaphors and parables. This is the sequence that may put you off, as you become impatient with characters who won't simply say what they mean and get on with it.

But hang in there, because the playwright's style eventually changes, and in an unexpected way.

Much of the first act is in fact comic in tone. The horseman, played with Rabelaisian energy by Nonso Anozie, has such vitality that he pauses in his rush toward death only to deflower one more virgin before he goes, giving the tribal celebrations a flavour somewhere between a wedding and an Irish wake.

Meanwhile, the British - played by black actors in whiteface - are all figures of fun, wickedly parodied and ridiculed from the African perspective.

The play only turns serious and dark when the British interfere, robbing the horseman of his destiny and his personal honour, and the people of religious ceremonies that are the backbone of their culture. And by that point the play has drawn us into the African perspective so that we feel the folly, injustice and tragedy.

There are some stumbles along the way. A scene between a British official's wife and an educated-in-England Nigerian is the occasion for telling us a lot of things rather than presenting them dramatically, and the surprise tragic twists of the final scene are telegraphed too far in advance to have their full shocking effect.

Nonso Anozie's horseman grows from a Falstaffian figure of fun to a tragic hero and victim, while Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules successfully walk the tightrope of playing the British as both broad parodies and sadly misguided and not-unsympathetic villains. Claire Benedict as a tribal matriarch and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the educated hope of the future are also strong presences.

It is always illuminating to see ourselves through others' eyes. A weak start aside, it is rarely as entertaining and emotionally involving as it is here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Death and the King's Horseman - National Theatre 2009