Review: Death and the King’s Horseman

by Lynn on June 12, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on the Soulpepper Theater website until June 30, 2021:

Written by Wole Soyinka

Directed by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Composer, Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison

Audio producer, Gregory Sinclair

Cast: Maev Beaty

Déjah Dixon-Green

Ijeoma Emesowum

Peter Fernandes

Patrick McManus

Pulga Muchochoma

Wole Oguntokun

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

Amaka Umeh

Micah Woods

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka is part of Soulpepper’s Around the World in 80 Plays audio series and this one is presented in partnership with the Stratford Festival. It’s the last in the series and this time we are in Nigeria.

The Story and Comment. This is from the show’s blurb: “When an individual’s actions shake a world off its axis, how is honour restored? When a Yoruba King dies, the King’s horseman, Elesin (Wole Oguntokun), is required by tradition to accompany him into the afterlife. But this sacred ritual is interrupted, resulting in an unforeseen tragedy. Based on actual events in British-occupied Nigeria, Wole Soyinka’s Nobel prize-winning play shares the story of a community striving to uphold its culture in the face of colonial power. “

I think a few details need expanding. In the play we are told there is a mourning period of one month between the death of the king and his burial. When it says that Elesin, the King’s Horseman is required by tradition to accompany him into the afterlife, they mean Elesin must commit suicide. If the process is interrupted then the spirit of the dead king roams the earth and can wreak havoc on the people because of his disturbed spirit.

Nigeria became a British protectorate in 1901 and had British colonial influence until 1960 when there was a movement for independence, which they got in 1963. In the play Simon Pilkings (Patrick McManus), the British District Officer in Nigeria, learned of the tradition, that Elesin had to commit suicide to fulfill the traditional ritual, thought it was unacceptable from his civilized British point of view and was going to prevent it. This is what is meant by an individual’s actions shake a world off its axis.

Elesin considered this tradition an honour to fulfill.  Elesin is a hugely confident man, totally aware of his stature in the community because of this honour and he was going to play it to the hilt. Here is a wonderful speech he gives: “In all my life as a horseman of the King, the juiciest fruit on every tree was mine. I saw. I touched, I wooed. Rarely was the answer no. the honour of my place; the veneration I received in the eye of man or woman prospered my suit, played havoc with my sleeping hours, and they tell me my eyes were always in perpetual hunger.”

Glorious. The language and rhythms of Nigeria as exemplified in Soyinka’s play are seductive, evocative and gleaming.

Elesin planned to marry the most beautiful young woman in the village, have the wedding night and do his husbandly duties, thus carrying on his line, then follow the King into the afterlife soon after. But the women of the village take him to task for his hubris: first in the person of Olohun-iyo (Amaka Umeh) a praise singer, and then Iyaloja, (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) Mother of the Market. Elesin has an obvious verve for life and determination to have as much pleasure before he has to give up his life. Elesin knows and believes in the importance of the tradition, but the women are fearless in letting him know that his humility and sense of entitlement leave a lot to be desired.  

With the British in Nigeria Soyinka, through his play, addresses the difference in cultures and how one treats the other. It’s one of the many beauties of the play. The arrogance and contempt of the British, exemplified in Simon Pilkings and others,  for the traditions of the people of the village are obvious. Pilkings represents the quintessential overpowering culture who has no reason to learn anything about the place or people whom he is colonizing. Pilkings was going to stop the fulfilling of the tradition because he didn’t agree with suicide.  He didn’t care about the ramifications and consequences.

There are references that native Nigerians became Christians during Pilkings’ stay, so one can assume pressure was put on them to convert. And Mrs. Pilkings (Maev Beaty) is no better—she is more accommodating on the surface, but really no better.

For example there is a costume ball at the European Club in the village to welcome British royalty and she thinks it’s for a good cause. Mrs. Pilkings wears a traditional Nigerian mask that she’s tinkered with for the ball. She meets Elesin’s son Olunde (Peter Fernandes) who has returned from England to do his duty at his father’s funeral. He knows the Pilkings because they sent him to England to study medicine and ensure a bright future, from their point of view.

Olunde is polite when he sees her but eventually he says to her: “You have no respect for what you don’t understand.” And he says of the ball. ”…that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask.” Again, rather than see her cultural blunder and apologize Mrs. Pilkings says to him, “So you returned with a chip on your shoulder.”

The play was written in the 1970s and I think it’s as timely today as it was then.  You don’t get the sense that attitudes have changed toward other cultures. And it’s interesting to note that Wole Soyinka was so observant about the differences in British and Nigerian culture.  (He wrote the play at Cambridge).

Mr. Pilkings didn’t share anything important about his work with his wife—no need for her to know. She was not treated as an equal in that marriage or important in her husband’s work. She was someone to be a cordial hostess to the British upper classes, without learning about the people the British were acting as ‘protectors.’

But in Nigeria those women of the market were fiercely independent and could and did stand up to the revered King’s Horseman. I loved that juxtaposition.

The Production. I thought the audio production was terrific.  The language of the play is dense and poetic. The rhythms are so particular in the language of the play and the cast, under the direction of Tawiah Ben M’Carthy, nails them.The cadence, pace and emotion just grip you.

You get the sense of bursting life and pride in Elesin by Wole Oguntokun’s performance. There is confidence, verve and a bristling energy in his delivery. The fierce independence and strength in Olohun-iyo is so clear because Amaka Umeh’s performance is so confident in standing up to Elesin.  The same can be said of Iyaloja-Mother of the market, by Kadijah Roberts-Abdullah’s performance. As Mother of the market, Iyaloja empowers the same stature to stand up to the prideful Elesin. It’s a buoyant balancing act as one side does not concede to the other—and the women make their points with quiet understatement and the occasional contemptuous ‘tsk’.

Olunde is his father’s son in every way. He knows his responsibilities to tradition and he’s learned about other cultures in his time in Britain. But as played by Peter Fernandes, Olunde is more courtly than his father Elesin. He knows how to play the game but he can stare down Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings’ arrogance and send a barb with unerring accuracy and do it quietly ( ”…that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask.”). Patrick McManus as Simon Pilkings has that haughty, distracted air about him when dealing with people he feels are lesser. And Maev Beaty as Mrs. Pilkings has that arrogance as well although in a subtler version. Still not twigging to her cultural blunder is part of Mrs. Pilkings persona and Beaty plays it beautifully.

No less important in the cast of characters is the almost constant presence of drumming, composed by Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison. The subtle drumming is the heart-beat of the play; the conscience of the people being ‘protected.’ The drumming is there, rhythmic, constant and persistent as an underscore to the dialogue. At times the pace, the thrumming increases as does the sense of danger or heightened emotion. And the sound scape of Debashis Sinha creates the world of the play.

I thought the whole series of Around the World in 80 Plays was a terrific tour of international plays that gave us a look into other cultures, language, and stories. Rather than look at these plays from ‘our’ point of view and how they compared to us, they made us look at them fresh, anew, from ‘their’ point of view.

Death and the King’s Horseman is streaming on the Soulpepper Theater webpage until June 30. For tickets go to

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