Stage Door Review

Death and the King’s Horseman

Saturday, September 3, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

by Wole Soyinka, directed by Tawiah M’Carthy

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

August 27-October 29, 2022

Elesin: “Memory is the Master of Death”

Since it was first published in 1975, Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka has been counted one of masterpieces of world drama. In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first sub-Saharan African to be accorded that honour. Despite this, Horseman has seldom been performed, and I had put it down as one of the masterpieces that I would likely never see. Imagine my delight, then, that not only would the play be performed in Canada for the first time but at the Stratford Festival. The greatness of the work and the rarity of actually seeing it on stage are reasons enough to travel to Stratford to see it. The fact that the play receives an impressive production is a subordinate but welcome pleasure.

Soyinka based the play on real events that occurred in Oyo, Nigeria, in 1946. The King’s Horseman, his son and the Colonial District Officer are all based on real people. Soyinka has moved the year of the events back to 1943 so that World War II is still raging in the background of the action in Oyo, once capital of the Oyo Empire, the largest Yoruba-speaking state in west Africa. Its power lasted from the mid-17th- to the mid-18th century and at its height it encompassed 150,000 square km. It was particularly renowned for its powerful cavalry.

When the action of the play begins it has been 30 days since the Yoruba king has died. As per tradition the King’s dog and horse will be killed and the King’s Horseman, Elesin Oba, will commit suicide to guide the King into the afterlife. The universe itself depends on this action. Should he fail to do this the universe will be plunged into chaos.

Elesin enters the marketplace, the heart of the ancient city of Oyo, prepared to enjoy his final day on earth. A Praise-singer, a type of orator, accompanies Elesin to get to know him since he, the Praise-singer, will be the one who keeps Elesin’s memory alive for future generations. The present Praise-singer thinks that Elesin enjoys life so much that he may not carry out the deed he is supposed to do, though Elesin denies it.

This view seems to be supported when Elesin demands that Iyaloja (the "Mother of the Market") match him for the night with a girl he saw. Even though the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja's own son, and she's worried that getting married will be a distraction from the task at hand, Iyaloja agrees to the match.

Meanwhile at his residence, Simon Pilkings, the local District Officer, and his wife, Jane, are preparing for a masquerade party. The local policeman Amusa is shocked to see them because they are wearing costumes that he says “belong to dead cult, not for human being”. Soyinka explains what these costumes are only in his stage directions. They are “egungun”, costumes used in Yoruba ancestor worship. The person who wears one of these costume becomes the visible manifestation the spirit of a departed ancestor. Amusa is thus shocked to see the British couple desecrating a native ritual costume for trivial amusement.

Since the Prince will be at the ball, Pilkings sends Amusa off to do Pilkings job, i.e., of preventing Elesin from committing suicide which is both illegal and a perpetuation of the native beliefs that the British are trying to stamp out. Amusa does not succeed, the ritual begins and Elesin enters a trance.

When Pilkings learns at the ball that Amusa has not stopped the ceremony, he leaves to take on the matter himself. Now alone, Jane encounters Olunde, Elesin's eldest son, whom the Pilkingses had helped get into medical school in England. Despite the breach with his father that his departure caused, Olunde began his journey back to Nigeria as soon as he heard the King had died. As we learn, the son of the King’s Horseman becomes the next King’s Horseman. Soon we discover that Pilkington has successful intervened and the ritual has not been completed. For the British this event is merely an act of suicide prevention and imprisoning Elesin is a means of quelling the rioting it has caused. For the Yorubans it is a cosmic catastrophe. What really has occurred is the main question Soyinka explores in the last of the five scenes of the play.

It should be clear even from the summary above that the scope of Soyinka’s play is enormous. We may think that “marketplace” is merely the designation for a general meeting place in a town. Yet, since the play is so filled with Yoruban references, it is useful to know that “The Marketplace” is also the name in Yoruban religion for Earth. Thus, from the very beginning the action of the play takes place simultaneously on a physical and a metaphysical level.

Anyone looking to Death and the King’s Horseman for a diatribe against colonialism will have to look elsewhere. In his Authors Note to the play, Soyinka states that most facile way of viewing the action is as “a clash of cultures”. He continues, “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind – the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passage which links all : transition”.

Thus, the play presents the audience with a series of ironies. Nigeria became a British colony in 1914, but despite this earthly dominion, the real power in the play is that of Yoruban religion. The British characters in the play may think they are important, but they are minor players in the grand scheme of things which only make their pretensions look more ridiculous. As Soyinka says, they serve only as a catalyst for a struggle within Elesin and within Olunde, a struggle  that has been ongoing since the death of the King.

Soyinka also makes a point of indicating that not all the native population are believers in the Yoruban religion. We learn that Sergeant Amusa is a Muslim and that the Pilkingses’ houseboy is a Christian. From Amusa we learn that even though he is Muslim, he still finds it offensive for the Pilkingses to desecrate Yoruban ritual garments. This suggests a respect among religious adherents that the Pinlkingses clearly don’t have. We find that the Pilkingeses’ houseboy Joseph is upset when Pilkings says, “Don’t tell me all that holy water nonsense also wiped out your tribal memory”. This suggests even the colonizers don’t really believe in the religion their missionaries are thrusting upon the populace.

By deliberately singling out one Muslim and one Christian to converse with Pilkings, Soyinka adds a further level of irony to the entire play. In the Nigerian census of 1952 the Muslim population was estimated at 47.4%, the Christian at 21.1% and Other (of which Yoruban religion is only one part) at 31.6%. By 1963 Other had shrunk to 18.5% and by 2018 to 0.6%. The decline of traditional religion is a theme in Nigerian literature and Horseman is often cited as one of its signal representatives.

The point is that in 1975 Soyinka would have been well aware of the ongoing decline in Yoruban religion. In the present day Islam and Christian almost evenly split the country between them. Death and the King’s Horseman, therefore, is Soyinka’s lament not just for a certain person or family, but for a whole people and their system of beliefs. This is why Soyinka says in his Author’s Note that any future director should refrain from “a sadly familiar reductionist tendency, and to direct his vision instead to the far more difficult and risky task of eliciting the play’s threnodic essence”.

Whether the current Stratford production fully achieves this is doubtful. Director Tawiah M’Carthy fills the plays with Yoruban music and dancing, especially in Scenes 1 and 3 set in the marketplace. The music and dancing immediately transport us to another place both geographically and spiritually. Sarah Uwadia’s costumes for various tourists taking in the local festivities placed the period in the 1940s. There are four onstage musicians – Amado Dedeu García, Adékúnlé Olórundáre (Kunle), Erik Samuel and Oluwakayode Sodunke who play almost continuously through each of the two scenes. In fact, there is so much music and dancing in Scene 1 that it actually makes the arguments between Elesin and the Praise-Singer and Elesin and Iyaloja nearly impossible to follow.

When the National Theatre presented Rufus Norris’s production of the play in London in 2009, it ran two hours and fifteen minutes including an interval. The Stratford production runs for two hours fifty minutes. That means that M’Carthy has added 35 minutes more music and dancing than did Norris. Although the music and dancing are very enjoyable there does come a point in the very long Scene 1 when we wonder when the action of the drama itself will begin. Soyinka recommends in his Author’s Note that “The play should run without an interval” and recommends “rapid scene changes”. This suggests that tempting though it may be to turn the play into a folkloric spectacle, that is not at all Soyinka’s purpose. The time and place of the action need to be indicated but spectacle should not outweigh the drama.

M’Carthy gives in to spectacle again at the end of Scene 3 where Elesin is last seen dancing in a trance. The Tom Patterson Theatre offers many temptations for a young director and one is its stage machinery. At the end of Scene 3 M’Carthy has Elesin sink not into a trance but sink physically as he is slowly lowered down the trap door he is standing on. This make look great but anyone who does not know the play will think this represents Elesin’s suicide and will thus be rather surprised when Elesin reappears in the next scene.

M’Carthy may have used an overabundance of Yoruban music to instil a feeling of authenticity into the play. For the same reason he has employed a Yoruba Dialect Coach, Wolé Oguntokun, who is also the Dramaturge. It is necessary in the play that the Yorubans and the British speak differently, particularly since there is a very funny episode in Scene 3 where Iyaloja’s daughters imitate what British people sound like when they speak. Nevertheless, Oguntokun’s coaching has not taken hold evenly or continuously. In Scene 1 Amaka Umeh as the Praise-Singer and Anthony Santiago as Elesin speak in English with such a heavy Yoruban accent that they can barely be understood by anyone unfamiliar with that accent. Their speaking in this manner interspersed with so much music means that much of the important background information they discuss goes missing. As Iyaloja, however, Akosua Amo-Adem uses a minimal Yoruban accent so that we really rely on her remarks to understand what is happening.

Having one’s accent fade during a performance would normally be counted as a flaw, but in this case it is a major benefit when Santiago abandons his too-weighty Yoruban accent for the remainder of his scenes. Umeh rigorously clings to hers as the Praise-Singer so that most of her long speeches in the rest of the play will be intelligible only to a few.

It is a testament to the strength of Soyinka’s writing and to the clarity of his concept that the play survives its unwarranted lengthening through too much folkloriana and the submergence of crucial speeches in too much dialectal authenticity. Once the generally incomprehensible Scene 1 is over, M’Carthy draws such passionate performances from the key cast members that we are soon caught up in the play’s central mystery.

As Elesin, the King’s Horseman, Anthony Santiago takes us on a vast emotional journey. Though we may not understand all he says in Scene 1, he makes clear that Elesin is greeting his last day on earth with what seems to be almost too much joy and ease. On the one hand we think it is marvellous that a man can so reconcile himself to suicide that he feels free to live his life to the fullest on its final day. On the other hand, his dismissive assurances to the Praise-Singer and Iyaloja that he will not back down seems almost too good to be true.

I do not want to reveal the ending, but when the police stop Elesin and take him to the District Officer’s home, Santiago conveys a heart-rending mixture of humiliation, guilt and anger – a reaction much more complex that we would have anticipated and which indicates that Elesin’s situation is far from simple. Santiago’s depiction of Elesin’s final remorse is almost too painful to watch.

In Scene 1 two people question Elesin’s resolution to do what duty demands. One is the Praise-Singer, who is unfortunately too difficult to understand. The other is Iyaloja, know as the “Mother of the Market”. Since Akosua Amo-Adem shuns a heavy Yoruban accent Iyaloja’s taunts and criticisms are perfectly clear. It may be that Amo-Adem presents Iyaloja in only two modes – fierce and fiercer – but in the enormous power she summons up Amo-Adem makes Iyaloja, not Pilkings or the Praise-Singer, Elesin’s primary antagonist. Iyaloja’s raillery may seem strong in Scene 1, but in Scene 5 Amo-Adem takes Iyaloja’s rage and sarcasm to an even higher level. We feel as if this Iyaloja, word by word, takes away what little will to live that still exists in Elesin. It is a suitably frightening castigation of a man whose failure has undone the cosmic order.

In contrast to the suffering of Elesin and the rage of Iyaloja, Colonial District Officer Pilkings and his wife look shallow and foolish. Graham Abbey certainly plays Pilkings as a buffoon who has no idea how out of his depth he is in dealing with the local populace and their beliefs. The fact that Pilkings should have to weigh attending a masquerade ball versus doing his duties already signifies his weakness. We note that Soyinka has Pilkings take a patronizing view of both the native populace and of women, including his own wife, thus linking the man’s racism with male chauvinism.

At the same time, Soyinka also shows that all of Pilkings’s best ideas come directly from his wife who shows far greater empathy for other people than he does. This is the kind of complicated part Maev Beaty plays so well. Beaty shows us clearly that Jane’s mental horizons are nearly as limited as her husband’s, but she also indicates through the slightest gestures that her husband’s patronizing attitude grates on her and, she perceives, on his other subordinates. Beaty lets us see that Jane comes closest to understanding Elesin’s son Olunde, although her life-experience and world-view are simply not large enough to comprehend all that he is saying.

As Olunde, Kwaku Adu-Poku gives a terrific performance. From his first entrance we can tell that Olunde has the greatest intellect and the deepest sense of ethics of anyone in the British enclave. Once we see that even Jane cannot fully comprehend his motives, we know that none of the other Brits will. Adu-Poku phrases Olunde’s words in such a way that, in retrospect, they already point to the ending. So does the vehemence of his insistence on seeing his father. Adu-Poku lets us know, if we are sensitive to it, that Olunde needs to see Elesin for reasons that are far greater than filial reconciliation.

The role of the Praise-Singer is important in innumerable ways since she serves to bring out Elesin’s psychology as a well as to document his life. Sadly, Amaka Umeh, unlike everyone else in the production, is so wedded to demonstrating her facility in producing a Yoruban accent that she allows it to outweigh the necessity of being intelligible to all. It is primarily through her tone of voice and abundant gestures that we have any clue as to what she might be saying. Yet, in a rare production of Soyinka’s dramatic masterpiece it is sad to lose so much of his text.

Despite significant flaws in the production, the play’s final effect is still overwhelmingly powerful. After Iyaloja’s intense castigation of Elesin in the final scene, M’Carthy slows us gradually into the mode of mourning and we feel at last the “threnodic essence” of the play that Soyinka emphasizes finally emerging.

Olunde tells Jane about the British, “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” We know what Olunde means, particularly about the British. But by the conclusion of Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka has confronted us with a catastrophe with so many ramifications that we cannot understand them all. Yet, we do respect Soyinka for guiding us through an experience of such profundity. We have to thank the Stratford Festival for finally presenting classic theatre reflecting a world outside Europe and North America. The best aspect of the current production of Death and the King’s Horseman is that when you emerge from the theatre you will be overcome by that unshakable, indefinable feeling that you have just seen a masterpiece.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Antonia Santiago as Elesin, the King’s Horseman, (in red) surrounded by members of the company; Maev Beaty as Jane Pilkings and Graham Abbey as Simon Pilkings wearing egungun costumes; Akosua Amo-Adem as Iyaloja; Amaka Umeh as the Praise-Singer with Akosua Amo-Adem as Iyaloja and company in background; Kwaku Adu-Poku as Olunde. © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.