Monday, June 15, 2009

Death and the King's Horseman

I'd known Wole Soyinka's masterpiece for a long time - written about it and workshopped scenes from it on various occasions. So I was genuinely excited finally to get the chance to see a full production at the National on Friday. The play's only been done once before in the UK, when Phyllida directed it in Manchester back in 1990 (!). In fact, I've only ever seen one other Soyinka play at all - which was The Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican a while ago. This is an altogether bigger piece, and it is brilliantly done at the National. Oddly, I'd not seen Rufus Norris's work before - but he has done this wonderfully. It's very funny and it's genuinely tragic.

One of the most interesting decisions is to have the white characters played by black actors, who are "whited up" on stage at the start of the performance. It's very similar to the effect in Almighty Voice and His Wife - where the ghosts are in white-face for the second half - you sense the conventions of a racist theatre being turned on their head by a post-colonial production. If the District Officer and his wife were played by white actors, then it's almost inevitable that, for all the absurdity of the characters, the predominantly white, middle-class audience at the National would end up identifying with them. Done like this, the whole play clearly emerges from the Yoruba viewpoint, so the two-dimensionality of the white characters becomes an advantage, and their absurd, sub-Coward language is the comic relief to the rich poetry of the Yoruba characters.

I keep remembering our own production of The Dilemma of a Ghost - which had a similar aesthetic, though a lower budget! The presence of Seun Shote in the cast makes the memory very tangible.

1 comment:

JG said...

Hello Michael,
I know it is often said that Phyllida Lloyd's Manchester production of Death and the King's Horseman was the first in the UK, but that credit actually goes to a Hull student production directed by Chris Kamlongera.