by Lynn on September 5, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theater, Stratford, Ont. Until Oct. 29, 2022.

Written by Wole Soyinka

Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy

Set by Rachel Forbes

Costumes by Sarah Uwadiae

Lighting by Christopher Dennis

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Music director/composer, Adékúnlé Olórundáre (Kunle)

Choreography by Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone

Cast: Graham Abbey

Kwaku Adu-Poku

Celia Aloma

Akosua Amo-Adem

Bola Aiyeola

isi bhakhomen

Maev Beaty

Déjah Dixon-Green

Ijeoma Emesowum

Rachel Jones

Matthew Kabwe

Kevin Kruchkywich

Josue Labourcane

Pulga Muchochoma

Ngabo Nabea

Andrea Rankin

Anthony Santiago

Tyrone Savage

Espoir Segbeaya

Amaka Umeh

Norman Yeung

Onstage Musicians/Yoruba Drums:

Amado Dedeu Garcia

Adékúnlé Olórundáre (Kunle)

Erik Samuel

Oluwakayode Sodunke

Death and the King’s Horseman is brisling with drama, poetry, ceremony, tradition and racism. The production is stunning.

The Story. Death and the King’s Horseman is a Nigerian classic that premiered in 1975. The play takes place in Nigeria during WWII when it was under British colonial rule.

A Yoruba King has died the month before. The tradition dictates that the King’s Horseman, Elesin, is required to accompany him into the afterlife. That means he has to commit suicide.

But this sacred ritual is interrupted when the ruling British overseers stop the tradition—they think it barbaric– resulting in an unforeseen tragedy.  Based on actual events in British-occupied Nigeria, Wole Soyinka’s play shares the story of a community striving to uphold its culture in the face of colonial power.  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. The success of crops and the economy are also affected.

Elesin considered this tradition an honour to fulfill. He 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. When I say he played his part to the hilt, he also got greedy.

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 a praise singer, and then Iyaloja, Mother of the Market. Those women of the market were fiercely independent and could and did stand up to the revered King’s Horseman.

To make matters even trickier, Elesin’s chosen bride was actually betrothed to a young man who was the son of Iyaloja, Mother of the Market. But tradition dictates that what the Horseman wants before he goes on his ‘final’ journey, he gets.  

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 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.

The Production. It’s terrific. Director Tawiah M’Carthy has directed a production full of the music, drama, throbbing beat and heart of the play. He got a head start when he also directed the audio version of this play as part of the Around the World in 80 Plays series, produced by Soulpepper June 2021, where I heard it and love it too.

His direction of the play for the Stratford Festival, is assured, confident, all embracing of the audience and carefully measured for the maximum effect. When the people of the market are on their own, there is an ease and confidence in their body language, expressions, singing and joy. When they come under the watchful, judging gaze of the British there is a stiffness a reticence.

This is certainly realized when trouble starts to brew during the visit of a royal party from Britain to the area. There are references that native Nigerians became Christians during Pilkings’ stay, so one can assume pressure was put on them to convert. The Pilkings want to put on a good show and want everything to be uneventful for the royal visit. They organize a costume party for the occasion in which Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings (Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty) wear a sacred mask as part of the costume, completely oblivious of their disrespect to the Yoruba culture.

Added to this are Elesin’s (Anthony Santiago) intended suicide and the preliminary ceremonies before that. He has delayed the inevitable for so long with his own celebrations—earning the wrath of Iyaloja and the other women of the market—that it gives Pilkings the needed time to intervene and try and stop the ceremony. What Pilkings hadn’t considered is Elesin’s son, Olunde (Kwaku Adu-Poku).

Years before, against his father’s will and with the encouragement of Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings, Olunde was sent to England to be educated. He then trained to be a doctor. But with the death of the king, he knew that his father would soon traditionally follow his king to the afterlife. Olunde came home to bury his father.

Kwaku Adu-Poku as Olunde, every inch a formidable presence. Calm, confident, poised in a beautifully tailored brown suit, tie and shoes, the effects of a British way of life are clear. But Olunde is also a man of his people and he knows how to navigate both worlds. When he confronts Mrs. Pilkings in her Nigerian costume, he is polite but eventually pointed.  

He says to her: “You have no respect for what you don’t understand.” And he says of the costume party. ”…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 was considered important in her husband’s work. She was someone to be a cordial hostess to the British upper classes, without learning about the people for whom 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 and anyone else who challenged their way of life. I loved that juxtaposition.

For the Stratford production Tawiah M’Carthy and his creative team fill the Tom Patterson stage with the colour of the costumes (Sarah Uwadiae) and the bustle and energy of the market place–complete with mounds of spices, fruits, vegetables, music and dance. Kudos to Rachel Forbes for her set of the market place etc. that put the audience right in the centre of that energy.  

Before we hear the language of the play, which is dense and poetic, we hear the throb of the drumming. The subtle drumming is the heart-beat of the play; the conscience of the people. No less important in the cast of characters is the almost constant presence of drumming, composed by Adékúnlé Olórundáre (Kunle) and played by him and his fellow musicians.

The rhythms are so particular in the language of the play and the cast nails them. The cadence, pace and emotion just grip you. You get the sense of bursting life and pride in Elesin by Anthony Santiago’s performance. There is confidence, verve and a bristling energy in his delivery and an arrogance in his pride of place.

There is impish joy and beautiful singing by Amaka Umeh as Olohun-iyo—the Praise Singer. Umeh’s movement is as agile as her singing.

Akosua Amo-Adem plays Iyaloja-Mother of the Market and she is astonishing. There is power in her stillness as she stares down Elesin or anyone she thinks gets in her way to carrying out tradition or standing up for her culture. She quietly takes Elesin to task for his hubris and other ills. Formidable.  

Graham Abbey as Simon Pilkings has that haughty, distracted air about him when dealing with people he feels are lesser. And there is also a sense of worry that this new trouble might be something he can’t control with arrogance. And Maev Beaty as Jane Pilkings has that arrogance as well although in a subtler version.

Comment. Death and the King’s Horseman might be an odd choice of a play for the Stratford Festival,  but here is an effort to acknowledge classics of another culture, in this case the Yaruba culture of Nigeria, and this play by Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winning author. The Stratford Festival was a partner with Soulpepper in producing the audio version a year ago June.

Rather than look at a play from ‘our’ culture and our point of view and how it compares to us, Death and the King’s Horseman makes us look at it fresh, anew, from the Nigerian point of view. Their people, culture and traditions were being ‘managed’ by the colonizing British and the Nigerian’s were standing up and ‘pushing’ back to protect their culture.

Something happened during the opening that was wonderful in experiencing the play with a definite mixed audience in which many people were in traditional Nigerian dress. We all experience a play and production in our own, different way, and it’s important to embrace that difference as a learning, educational experience. Often when a character took the British to task with a truth, many in the audience murmured and snapped their fingers in approval.  We all need to hear that and learn about another way of experiencing the play.

At one point Pilkings demands that this ritual suicide be explained to him and a quiet voice in the audience asked, “Why?” Part of the audience also murmured quiet approval of that question. We all need to hear that comment and learn about another way of experiencing the play.

That can’t happen if we are separated into segregated audiences, which happens occasionally with some productions. This bracing experience of listening to another way of appreciating the play, proves it’s best when we are all together in a room, as a community, experiencing a play in many different, respectful ways.  

Loved this production.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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