Spectacle, music as National Troupe brings ‘Death’ back to life

Theatre lovers have not stopped raving over the excellent outing the National Troupe of Nigeria had with Prof. Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ last Sunday

THE audience, as if cued, rose in unison, applauding the spectacular feast of poetry, music and dance that is Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and The King’s Horseman’ that the National Troupe of Nigeria had just finished serving them.

It was an evening well-spent for the theatre buffs that saw the command performance of the excellent production staged to mark 40 years of the play and the 30th anniversary of Professor Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for Literature at Cinema Hall 1, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos last Sunday. They enjoyed the presentation so much that the applause was sustained as the actors took their bow.

But it couldn’t have been otherwise. What with the calibre of actors – artistes of the National Troupe joined by quality guest actors, the elegant but functional set, very rich and appropriate Yoruba traditional costumes, props and of course, the source material; the play most believe earned Soyinka the Nobel.

Essentially, it was a case of a great play meeting capable producers/actors who ensured its full realisation.  The production team led by Mike Anyanwu (Director), Josephine Igberease (Assistant Director), Hilary Elemi (Technical Director) and Teju Kareem of Zmirage, cooked a treat the audience loved.

Set in Oyo Kingdom during British colonial rule, the play opens with Elesin Oba (Toyin Oshinaike), the king’s horseman and his trusted sidekick, Olohun Iyo (Yemi Oyewo), on their way to the market. Elesin Oba, who is to commit suicide later that night so that his spirit  can clear the way for the transition of the king’s spirit in the afterlife,  wants a final tryst with his beloved market women led by Iyaloja (Lara Akinsola).

Aware of the onerous task before him, the Iyaloja and her women proceed to psyche Elesin Oba preparatory to his death. They commiserate with him and commend him simultaneously, noting that his illustrious forbears did same for the kings they served.  The indulgent Elesin Oba thereafter throws a tantrum. First he demands new sets of clothes from the women and later spies a nubile young woman entering a hut. Despite Iyaloja’s warnings that a greater task lies ahead and that the young lady is betrothed, Elesin Oba could not hold himself.

Regarding it as the last wish of a man about to meet his maker, Iyaloja relents and quickly organises a marriage such that wedding drumbeats co-mingle with that of Elesin Oba’s imminent death. The marriage is consummated and Elesin Oba “meets the lady at home”- a white piece of cloth stained with blood attesting to the girl’s chastity. This selfish act, not unlike most of our political leaders who would rather take actions that benefit only them instead of looking at the bigger picture and taking decisions for the well-being of the community, eventually proves his waterloo.

Mr. Pilkings (Tom Godwin), the British Colonial officer, who had earlier had a brush with Elesin Oba by assisting his first son, Olunde to travel to the UK to study Medicine against his father’s wish, subsequently interrupts the death rites. Having been warned by his senior police officer, Sergeant Amusa played by Muyiwa Odukale, and heeding the advice of his wife, Pilkings seizes Elesin Oba at the highest point of the rites of passage. He also jails Elesin Oba, thereby preventing him from carrying out his assigned task, to the community’s horror.

In justifying his decision to stop Elesin Oba, Pilkings describes the practice as barbaric and an indication that the natives have not internalised lessons they were being taught by the Europeans. He also fails to show sensitivity to the culture of the people, appropriating alongside his wife, Egungun costumes from the natives for a ball in honour of a visiting royalty from England.

spectacle2 Thankfully, Elesin Oba’s son, Olunde, who has been informed about the king’s death by a relative, and aware of the fate awaiting his father, has since returned home so he could bury his father. He is overcome by shock that his father failed to do the community’s bidding, telling him stiffly “I have no father, eater of left overs” when the duo meet in Pilkings house.  It is a heartbreaking scene as the great Elesin Oba is reduced to nothing in the presence of his son who wouldn’t even dignify him with a glance. To save the community and despite his so called western education, Olunde takes his father’s place in a telling act of personal sacrifice that has since taken flight from these shores.  His corpse his brought to his father in jail and Elesin Oba strangulates himself with the chains in his hand. Sadly, his death is meaningless.

Though tragic, the play has several light sides and attests to Soyinka’s mastery of drama, humour and rousing dialogue. There’s Amusa who refuses to “talk against death to person in uniform of death” when he sights his master and mistress in the Egungun costume. The scene where he goes to arrest Elesin Oba but is prevented by the IyaLoja, the women and their daughters is also very hilarious, laced with innuendos about his manhood and mimicry of western mannerisms.

The music adds another dimension to the play. Exuberant and solemn in turns, a number of old people in the audience sang along some of the songs including ‘Ale le, Awo mi lo’ and ‘Kilo pana o”.  In fact, the actors must be commended for bringing the play vividly to life.  Oshinaike who plays Elesin Oba further burnished his reputation as one of Nigeria’s foremost stage actors while Kola Oyewo’s son, Yemi, who plays Olohun Iyo, also puts in a spectacular shift. That he appeared to pause in trying to remember some of his lines towards the end of the play was easily overlooked by the audience as he complemented Elesin Oba well.

Despite having been on stage just two days before in Abeokuta, Ogun State, featuring in ‘Iyalode of Eti’, the festival drama of the 4th Ake Arts and Book Festival, Segun Dada, who plays Olunde also gave a good account of himself. The young man is one to watch while veterans like Lara Akinsola, Muyiwa Odukale, Tom Godwin and Inna Erizia more than justified their inclusion.

The cast and crew pulled together in the same direction and the result was the fine theatre the audience, some of who had to stand because the hall was jam-packed, thoroughly loved and generously applauded.

Even the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, host of the evening and supporter of the celebration, was impressed. He joined in the standing ovation and exchanged hearty greetings with both cast and crew after they took their bows.

Speaking earlier before the commencement of the play and after Artistic Director of the National Troupe, Mr. Akin Adejuwon had delivered Professor Soyinka’s message that he was not present because he was preparing for ‘Wolexit’, Mohammed hailed  Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner.

He said:  “Professor Soyinka’s literary creativity, ingenuity and contributions to the growth and development of literature and dramatic arts can easily be described as legendary. He has continued to play vital roles in the development of arts, culture and democracy in Nigeria and around the world. I want to say that we will continue to count on his support in our quest to develop and promote our country’s creative industry to enhance its contributions to the national economy.” Mohammed later presented a gift received on Soyinka’s behalf by his son, Makin.

The command performance, was the concluding part of a three- in- one celebration of Soyinka  which also featured a CORA Stampede themed ‘ 40 Years of ‘Death and The King’s Horseman’ and an exhibition of works from Soyinka’s personal collection curated by painter Olu Ajayi.