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By Shaun Hutchinson


Saturday/Sunday, April 18-19, 2009.


Is death the start of the human journey or its end? Is mortality a transition from one sphere of our existence to another - the recurring cycle of life, death and rebirth? From Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka’s versatile prose emerges a mournful piece of theatre, which isn’t in fear of difficult themes of life and death, tradition and loyalty. These are profound questions and the sacred Yoruba traditions are the raw material from which they are explored.


Written in 1975 - and with comedy, farce and stinging caricatures of British colonials - an intriguing dramatisation of the Yoruba worldview is elegantly portrayed.


The acclaimed writer emphasises the solemnity of this piece, above the obvious critique of British colonialism, but the legitimate target is easy to hit and Director Rufus Norris’ visually brilliant production doesn’t miss. As for the ‘whitening up’ of Black actors – it’s unnecessary – as lacerating dialogue already parodies the British as unsophisticated and superficial.


Based on an actual event in 1940s Nigeria, Soyinka’s rarely performed play dramatises the ritual suicide of the King of Oyo’s ceremonial Horseman Elesin Oba, played by the irrepressible  6’ 7”  Nonso Anozie. 


The dilemma facing the Horseman as he prepares to accompany the deceased monarch on his journey to the afterlife is shared by the all-powerful District Officer Pilkings (Lucian Msamati).


With five perfectly fused scenes on the Olivier’s spacious stage, dance, [choreography/movement by Javier de Frutos] song and drumming integrate smoothly to create an atmospheric vibe depicting the vitality and rhythms of the Yoruba culture. But it soothes an enrapt audience into a false sense of security, a comfort zone of complacency.


Portrayals of Yoruba traditions and  colonial lifestyle are provocative – one venerated and celebrated, the latter ridiculed. The drama takes place in two distinct environments. The vibrant market place - an arena where women guard traditions, symbolised by a serene Iyaloja (played by the excellent Claire Benedict). By contrast the refined setting of British expatriates disguise the arrogant racism of their ‘civilising mission’. 


As tensions develop there are several confrontations – Elesin and Iyaloja, Pilkings and his wife Jane (Jenny Jules with evocative, exaggerated gestures); Elesin’s son Olunde (Kobna Holbrook-Smith) and Jane - all strong characters with substance and depth.


Here, we admire the way Soyinka deftly alternates his prose. From Shakespearian verses - lyrical, rich in imagery of the people’s customs - to that of a 1930s style melodrama.  It’s somewhat difficult to absorb, but a tribute to the accomplished cast that they din’t struggle with it at all. In any case it’s balanced by several hilarious scenes - especially the colonialists’ masked ball and the Market Women’s humiliation of servile Native Policeman Sergeant Amusa (Derek Ezenagu).


As the show advances to its inevitability tragic end Olunde’s fascinating character is pivotal. Handpicked by the colonialists; sent - against his father’s wishes - to study in England, he has of course adopted aspects of British culture, though not at the expense of his own heritage.


Amongst a well-drilled and expert cast Nonso Anozie’s commanding performance catches the mood. The death transition scene is as he enters a trance like state in readiness for death is both poignant and frightening.


Wole Soyinka’s work raises important messages – how does the culture and heritage of a people renew itself in the face of social and cultural changes – from within – naturally and organically; or from without - after embracing of colonialist structures and values.


The Nigerian academics work stands the test of time and this excellent production should take its place amongst the classics. 


Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.



By Wole Soyinka

Directed by Rufus Norris

The Olivier at The National Theatre

08 April 2009


020 7452 3000

until 17 June 2009

Travelex £10 Tickets


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