National Theatre at the Olivier
An epic tale of death, duty and desecration.
Death and the King’s Horseman shows two cultures clashing in mutual incomprehension.
Soyinka’s drama was first seen, in Africa, in 1976. This is its first professional production in London.
Director Rufus Norris fills the stage with lively action – drums, dance, red sand, fire, and a brilliantly conceived flying market-place [designer Katrina Lindsay] – “the teeming market of the world”.
There was obvious delight in the telling of the tale – energy helped to make up for the plodding pace of much of the early dialogue, and the hesitant delivery of some of Soyinka’s best poetry. I liked the “animist” furniture in the colonial villa, especially the scurrying standard lamp.
Nanso Anozie was a powerful presence as Elesin, the horseman of the title, who, like the King’s dog, and his horse, must follow his late master through the narrow passage to the world of the Ancestors. Claire Benedict was the “Mother of the Market”, rallying the women in energetic protest, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was the British-educated son and heir.
Most of the fun was had by the actors who whited up [during the prologue] to play the Brits – pure caricature at first [did Soyinka write them that way, I wonder ?] with Jenny Jules brilliant as a Celia Johnson D.O.’s wife, but gradually becoming more rounded as the conflict deepened.
The closing moments – a genuinely tragic dénouement – were very fine, and the preview audience gave the huge company a warm ovation.