Death And The King’s Horseman – June 2009


By Wole Soyinka

Directed by Rufus Norris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th June 2009

On seeing this set, Steve thought it was the latest installation by Anthony Gormley. How awkward, I thought, when they’re trying to put on a play at the same time. When I saw it, I was intrigued. The stage floor was dark and shiny, with a broad red stripe curving round the front and more red speckles behind it. The rest of the floor seemed to be shiny black. There were about twelve figures spread across the centre of the stage; I assumed they were examples of Nigerian carving. They were eerie and beautiful at the same time – I don’t know the significance, although they may be a reference to the ancestors, so important in Nigerian culture.

There was a torn slit curving along the back at eye level with a bright white light shining through, and above it hung a long bundle of something indistinct – body parts, clothes? – which was lit from above. The overall effect was of a strange world, where spirits may walk and other values than our own hold sway – a good start.

When the lights went down (a bit late – there were a lot of people who needed to change seats because they found themselves in the wrong place) a trapdoor opened behind the figures and the cast began to emerge. The first, a woman, had a long lighted taper, and she came forward to light several flames round the front of the stage. By this light I could see that the red stuff was small granules, which some of the other women started to brush out of the way with the bundles of sticks they carried. Some of the men were taking the figures off stage, and with the musicians setting a good beat, it wasn’t long before dancing broke out, with one group of young women and another group of young men chasing each other around the stage. Meanwhile, Lucian Msamati (Pericles in the latest RSC production) and Jenny Jules were sitting on stools near the front being whited up. It was a very colourful, dynamic opening, where we could take in the spectacle and some of the details at our leisure.

Then, with all the figures off the stage and most of the actors having left as well, the play proper started with the dancing haystacks. Three of them, and they were dancing with the women. The Elesin (played by Nonso Anozie, the RSC Academy King Lear) came along and played hide and seek with the women amongst the haystacks until a chap in a bright blue outfit turned up, complaining that he’d been left behind. I didn’t follow all of it, but I gathered that the great man, the Elesin, the king’s horseman, was meant to have the services of someone to sing his praises, and this was the blue peacock’s job. I got the impression that the Elesin wanted to get on with chasing the young ladies, but he relented, and told the peacock to follow him. Their relationship reminded me of Shrek and the donkey – it was just as difficult to get peacock man to shut up.

At the village, there’s much rejoicing when the great man turns up, with lots more song and dance. The Mother of the market turns up (Claire Benedict) and is wonderfully gracious and commanding at the same time. She’s treated with great respect by Elesin, and after a bout of mock anger by him, they tog him out in some fresh clothes. During the dancing he spots a lovely young girl and is determined to have her that very night, even though she’s betrothed to another man. He talks it over with the Mother, and persuades her that he needs to unburden himself of his seed and leave it to grow in the earth before he dies that night. The image of the plantain is used a lot for this, the idea that the sap never dries out, that the old stem withers to feed the new sapling, that the cycle of life is continuous. The Mother agrees with him, but warns him not to leave seed that will harm the people. The marriage goes ahead, with the tendrils of the bundle descending over the couple, and then they sneak off to the marriage bed.

Just to explain – the King has died, and his horseman, the Elesin, is meant to die shortly afterwards, to continue serving the king in the afterlife. He’s expected to commit suicide, and this is what he plans to do that night.

Now we get to see the whited up characters, the District Officer and his wife. Mind you, we don’t get to see them at first, because they arrive in two magnificent red costumes with headdresses covering their faces completely, and dancing. Their furniture, veranda and two bushes also arrive dancing – I thought the lampshade in particular looked very fetching. The costumes are for a fancy dress party they’re off to that night and they’re used by the natives to represent the dead, or death. So when the sergeant turns up to report the imminent death of the Elesin, he can hardly get a word out for his fear of the costumes. Eventually the District Officer tells him to write down his information and get back to work.

The District Officer and his wife then try to find out what’s going on with the Elesin, so they question their steward, Joseph. He’s been Christian for a couple of years so isn’t bothered by the costumes. He is bothered by the drums, though, as they’re sending mixed messages. One minute they’re saying the king will die, then they say he’s getting married. With typical colonial insensitivity, the District Officer orders his men to arrest the Elesin to stop him killing himself, then he and his wife head off to the party.

When the two policemen arrive at the village they’re hounded mercilessly by the young women, who use their small brushes to good effect. The Mother arrives, but also chides them for wanting to take the Elesin away from his bride on the wedding night. There’s a lovely section where the women do impressions of the posh white folk (I’d have liked to have heard more of the lines) and the men are eventually sent packing after one of them has his underpants removed by the women.

Now the Elesin arrives, fresh from the consummation. The Mother shows a cloth round all the women to prove that sex has taken place. His wife, now a fully fledged woman herself, is led off, and after the women smear blue paint on his body the Elesin is left alone to die and accompany his king into the world of the ancestors. Interval.

The second half shows us more of the ‘white’ people at the fancy dress party. Some of the women carry yokes on their shoulders so they can carry two other dummy characters, one on each side – I’m not sure if the men were doing this too. All the party people were in historical frocks and outfits, except for the District Officer and his wife. They did some dancing, and then the District Officer was called away to deal with the problem of the Elesin and his intended death. His men catch the Elesin and bring him to the prison to prevent him committing suicide.

Around this time the Elesin’s son turns up. We’d already heard in the first half how the District Officer helped this young man to leave Africa and go to England to train as a doctor. As the eldest son, he would have been expected to carry on his father’s tradition and become horseman to the next chief. With his father not able to do what needs to be done, the young man kills himself instead to keep the cycle of life intact. Hearing this, the Elesin, manacled at the end of a long chain that hangs from the ceiling, also kills himself by wrapping the chain round his neck and strangling himself. It’s a sad ending, but a powerful and moving story, well told.

The experience of seeing black actors whiting up was a good one; at last there was some balance after years of the other way round, and although I must admit it was a bit of a jolt at first, I soon saw the funny side and loved every minute. There were some good pointed comments about colonialism, from a different perspective than we’re used to, and while I’m not keen on ritual killings per se, the overall impression was of a culture in closer touch with nature and the natural cycles than we ‘civilised’ folk often are, and full of life and the enjoyment of it. A very good afternoon’s entertainment, and a tremendous ensemble performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at