Death and the King's Horseman

Set in Oyo, Nigeria in the middle of World War II, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman centres around the battle between British colonialist views and the local traditions. The King has died after a long reign, and the people expect his horseman Elesin (Nonso Anozie) to carry out tradition and “follow his master” into the afterlife. However, the British district officer (played by Lacian Masamati) feels he cannot stand by and let such a ritual occur.From the very first scene, where drumming, dancing and song fill the Olivier stage and transport you to life in the locals’ community, it is clear that this will be a performance full of energy. Rufus Norris’ direction and Javier De Frutos’ choreography combines superbly to create a real ensemble feel to the piece; the scene changes are seamless and deliver and almost film-like quality while there is always the sense that something is happening – it is a predominantly busy stage.Nonso Anozie is quite simply superb as the Horseman, showing great presence in the lead up to his supposed death and then anger and vulnerability as he is detached from his destiny and disowned by his community. The decision to use face painted black actors as the white British colonialists is an inspired one, in line with the mockery of British attitudes throughout the piece, and they lay into the British pomp and circumstance with full commitment. Fortunately they manage to restrain themselves and maintain their integrity and realism in the darker second act, to allow us to sympathise with their attitudes as Pilkins intervenes in Elesin’s suicide.My only major criticism of this production is that the writing is slow at the beginning of the first act, and as such takes time to become attached to the narrative of the story. Overall however, this is a fantastic piece of theatre. Full of inventive physical work; song and high-quality, intense acting; it constantly asks the question of whether outsiders should judge a situation based on our principles or theirs. Why should we always resort to our neo-conservative backbone of influence and impression? And in the words of the Horseman’s son Ulundea, “How can a disaster greater than human reckoning be a triumph”?

Reviews by John C Kennedy

The Blurb

Nigeria, 1943. The King is dead, and tonight his Horseman must escort him to the Ancestors.