How's this for audacity? Dressed in stolen Yoruba tribal costumes signifying the honoring of death, a British ruling-class couple dances the Charleston. And, in this production, they're played by black actors in whiteface.
How’s this for audacity? Dressed in stolen Yoruba tribal costumes signifying the honoring of death, a British ruling-class couple dances the Charleston. And, in this production, they’re played by black actors in whiteface. That this complex, layered image is so comically legible is a tribute to the flair of helmer Rufus Norris. His staging of “Death and the King’s Horseman” doesn’t heal all the structural rifts in Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play, but its blazing vigor and cumulative intensity prevail.
The word “death” may be in the title, but Western expectations of somber, silent mourning are blown away by the opening. African calls and drumming break the silence, flames are lit at the stage’s edge and, strewing red sand on the gleaming stage floor, the company bursts into leaping, exuberant life.
Led by the turquoise-clad, full-voiced Praise Singer (Giles Terera), the actors dance, sing, sway and pray their way through a rich portrait of a market in an ancient Nigerian town under British control in 1943.
As a theatrical evocation of a different culture, this sophisticated staging is in a different league from the cultural tourism that often besets presentations of “exotic” foreign cultures. Katrina Lindsay’s coherent design is a thrilling mix of low-tech traditional Yoruba styles and symbols — faceless figures shimmering in straw, traditional costume motifs, high-strung bundles of clothing — and modern Western devices.
Paule Constable’s often counterintuitive lighting tames the epic Olivier space by edging Lindsay’s neutral backdrops — a succession of frayed veils that hint and withhold — with luminous blue and sculpting mysterious areas of darkness with streams of hot sunlight.
While the long opening section with image-heavy text teems with life, there’s frustratingly little ongoing drama with which to connect. But having established this world, Norris increases the forward momentum and a discernible plot emerges.
Elesin (a toweringly powerful Nonso Anozie) is the king’s horseman, the chieftain who, a month after the monarch’s death, must join him in his grave in order to escort his spirit. But Elesin has both an ego and unfinished business; on his last day, he decides he must take a young and beautiful wife.
Tribal customs are in stark contrast to those of the ruling Brits, principally District Officer Simon Pilkings (an hilariously peremptory and pompous Lucian Msamati) and his “silly” smart wife Jane (Jenny Jules, looking and sounding like the cut-glass wife in Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”).
This couple and their ignorant white colleagues are played by black actors “whited-up” — an effect that ups the comic absurdity in a manner similar to Caryl Churchill’s satire of imperialism in “Cloud Nine.”
But the play is more than a culture clash. Pilkings heedlessly intervenes to stop Elesin’s ritual suicide. The fallout not only risks a riot from the furious people, it forces an evaluation of conflicting philosophies over the meaning of death and the perils of selfishness running roughshod over group responsibilities.
Unsurprisingly, Soyinka’s arguments are less even-handed than he claims, but the play is none the worse for that. Its weakness lies in its ungainly dramaturgy, cutting awkwardly back and forth between the two sides.
Nor does Soyinka sufficiently dramatize the moment when Elesin’s fatal flaw gets the better of him. The blurred result slightly robs both character and play of their intended full tragic stature. In the extended climactic scene, it’s left to an imperious Claire Benedict as Iyaloja, the “Mother” of the market, to explain everything. Yet her spellbinding conviction — and that of Norris’ entire company — allows all the play’s events and ideas to fall into a profoundly arresting resting place.