Fear not, there are no more war horses invading the National Theatre. Instead, the horseman of the dead king on the outskirts of a Nigerian city in the twilight of British colonialism, in the shadow of a distant war, is preparing to follow his Yoruba leader to the grave in an act of tribal ritualism.
Wole Soyinka's 1975 play, first conceived during his time in this country at Cambridge University, was based on the true case of the interrupted ritual suicide of the king's horseman at Oyo in 1945. When the attempt was foiled by the British district officer, the horseman was imprisoned and the horseman's youngest son killed himself in his place.
These are the bare bones of Soyinka's play which opens on the Olivier stage – the second in the current Travelex £10 tickets season – with a great deal of marketplace "atmosphere". Lines of clothing are strung out above the auditorium, traders bear carpets and basket ware on their heads, trays of fruit are passed around and the horseman, Elesin Oba, is decked out in robes and beads for the final curtain.
His end is nigh, but not nigh enough to prevent him fancying a passing village maiden whom he proceeds to ravish. But the assignation of the virgin proves disastrous as it coincides with the arrival in the district of the Prince of Wales at a colonial ball.
The authorities prevent the suicide to deflect unrest. Rufus Norris's production here plays its strongest card, having the British colonials embodied by black actors wearing white painted face masks to underline the play's metaphor of fancy dress. The district officer Pilkings and his wife are played by Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules as clipped-voice Noel Coward parodies; but as they were responsible for dispatching Elesin's son Olunde (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) to medical school in England, they are also indirectly responsible for the tragic outcome when he returns to bear witness.
The British premiere of this play was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 1990, directed by Phyllida Lloyd of Mamma Mia! fame, and although one has to admire Soyinka's ambition in re-casting an idea of classical tragedy in an African context, Norris's National revival is no more persuasive than was Lloyd's, even though he takes a lot more time and care over making his case.
Both the associate director Peter Badejo and Claire Benedict as the "mother" of the market were involved in the Manchester premiere, and their contributions, along with Katrina Lindsay's design and Paule Constable's lighting, ensure an authentic ritual flavour. But the structure seems ponderous. Though the gargantuan Nonso Anozie, oozing the authority of a new Paul Robeson, dispatches his speeches with ferocity and fervour, he remains an impenetrable enigma.
Is he making an example of himself, or is he fulfiling his destiny? The pull of his ancestors is less urgent than the pull of his sexual urges. Soyinka may well be inviting an ambiguity of response, but the cultural guidelines are not fully laid down until the colonials turn on Olunde with racist remarks of which: "These natives put on a suit and get high opinions of themselves" is the mildest.
There is also a rapid, whispering poetry to much of the text that the production somehow loses in its rush to be visually diverting. The chanting, swaying and drum-beating is all great, and there are some notable comic cameos from Giles Terera as the sinuous praise singer who edges Elesin towards the brink and Sarah Amankwah who rolls her eyes and bends her limbs in the most alarming fashion while aping colonial manners with her choric sidekicks. Anozie, who played Othello for Cheek by Jowl, finally ratchets up the emotional content in the last scene, chained like a slave while his new wife sobs her heart out next to an unanticipated corpse.
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