Thursday, 2 April 2009

Death and the King's Horseman

Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman directed by rising star Rufus Norris opens at the National next week. I went along to see a preview last night and came away with mixed opinions.

To use a Kasia phrase: 'It wasn't stupid' but I couldn't help feeling disengaged and rather unmoved by the political and emotional battle fought out in front of me.

Elesin, the dead King's horseman, has had a wonderful life of privilege and favour and now as tribal tradition dictates he is expected to commit ritual suicide in order to accompany his former master into the afterlife. However, his own unwillingness to leave such a marvellous life and the clumsy interventions of Pilkings, a colonial administrator, who views the whole ritual as barbaric, lead to the act remaining delayed, disrupting the cosmology of Yoruba universe and bringing shame and misery on the tribe.

Norris is nothing if not a populist storyteller, who simplifies and activates the play with rigour and broad sweeps of a brush well suited for the vast Olivier. In this aspect, he is with Marianne Elliott, one of the few directors who embrace the unplayability of this stage and reward the audience with exuberance and attack. Along with Javier de Frutos, whose stylish choreography, provides a stimulating taut dynamism to the evening, he's found a language that opens up the play and allows us full access to the demonstrable tensions at it's heart.

The problem is, as with his bold production of David Eldridge's Market Boy three years ago, the play remains sociological at the expense of examining the complicated subtext. It leaves open to analysis the reasons behind the failure of the suicide and the colonial distaste for 'barbarism,' without recognising the basic humanity of either Elesin or Pilkings position.

In some ways this is another crude examination of Englishness (the black cast 'white' up to play the English) and it's interesting that it is playing in rep at the Olivier with England People Very Nice. But the approach comes unstuck in the second act when the essential philosophical debate between the two men becomes lost in the visual imagery and signifiers of colonialism. I think Soyinka wrote a subtler play than the one we're offered here and it made me wonder what Bijan Sheibani, who beautifully directed Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Yoruba influenced The Brothers Size last Autumn, would have made of this work. I suspect he'd have begun by insisting on a more intimate space for the story.

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