Death & The King’s Horseman

Posted on: 06 May 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s spectacular new production at the National Theatre.


The nature of man and his relationship with death and the spiritual world is explored by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in his play Death & The King’s Horseman which has opened at the NT’s Olivier auditorium in a spectacular new production directed by Rufus Norris.

The place is Nigeria, the year 1943.  The king is dead and tonight his horseman must escort him to the ancestors.  Indeed Elesin Oba has a single destiny.  As he dances through the closing marketplace, flirting with the women, pursued by his praise-singer and an entourage of drummers,

Elesin promises to honour the ancient Yoruba custom of ritual suicide and so accompany his ruler in the final journey.  But a life so rich is hard to leave, and this is a British colony where such customs are not tolerated no matter how sacred.

Set against the conflict of indigenous and invader, with the clash of values and cultures leading to inevitable tragedy, the play uses Elesin’s transition from the living to the dead to examine the essence of corruption and the power of the human will.

As a dramatist Soyinka’s work links modern theatre with traditional popular African theatre with its integration of dance, music and action.  Indeed this is a visually stunning production with members of the cast clad in brightly coloured costumes, impersonating standard lamps and covering themselves in raffia like mobile hay-ricks one minute and moving rhythmically to the pulsating beat of the drums the next. 

Despite its subject matter this is a play that is often quite funny with the black actors donning whiteface make-up to parody the snobbish idiocies of the white colonial rulers.

However the somewhat thin storyline sags at times and the production would have benefited from being tighter and about twenty minutes shorter – the play runs for almost 2¾ hours.  Yet throughout Soyinka’s profound poetry shines through, as exemplified by “a twilight whisper in the leaves” and “fortune was footloose this dawn, till you trapped him in a heartfelt wish that now returns to you” and makes this a work of unique distinction.

Under Rufus Norris’ firm direction the cast acquit themselves well, especially Nonso Anosie as a muscular and charismatic Elesin, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who brings anger and anguish to the role of Olunde, the horseman’s son, Claire Benedict as the ‘mother of the market’ and Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules who mock the British district officer and his wife with cruel panache.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium.

When: Continues in repertory.

Box Office: 0207 452 3333

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