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- Title: Death and the King’s Horseman
- Written by: Wole Soyinka
- Director: Tawiah M’Carthy
- Actors: Anthony Santiago, Amaka Umeh, Akosua Amo-Adem, Graham Abbey, Maev Beaty
- Company: The Stratford Festival
- Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to Oct. 29, 2022
- COVID-19 measures: Masks recommended but not required; reduced capacity performances available.
The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre may have officially opened earlier this summer – but it felt like it underwent its true artistic baptism on Saturday evening with the premiere of a powerfully immersive production of Death and the King’s Horseman.
Director Tawiah M’Carthy, in an assured Stratford debut, makes it seem as if the Patterson, in shape and soundscape, was specially built to stage this 20th century classic that the repertory company had not previously produced – and, indeed, only did produce as part of this new theatre’s inaugural season after cataclysmic world events upset its initial plans.
The finger of fate is felt in the way Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play about self-sacrifice and sacrileges fills every inch of its elongated thrust stage with drama, drumming and dance.
Based on a real series of events that took play in Oyo, Nigeria, in the 1940s, Death and the King’s Horseman (a Netflix-backed film version of which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September) centres on a Yoruba chief named Elesin Oba (Anthony Santiago) who is about to commit ritual suicide in order to accompany the recently deceased king to the afterlife.
As the play begins, Elesin is strutting around the market square, accompanied by his Praise Singer (Amaka Umeh) and drummers, preparing for this honourable and necessary duty.
Under the bravado and bluster, however, there is a sense that the late king’s horseman – his right-hand man to death and beyond – may not be as ready to leave behind the physical world and its fleshly pleasures as he professes.
While the subtleties and subtext of the initial exchanges between Elesin and his praise singer, filled with parables and proverbs, can be hard to fully parse on a first encounter, the encroaching conflict is entirely clear in M’Carthy’s production thanks to Akosua Amo-Adem’s reactions in her performance as Iyaloja, the “mother of the market” who tries to dissuade but ultimately accedes to the chief’s demand to wed and bed a young woman before departing this realm.
In the second scene, Soyinka masterfully shifts the register in which he is writing to a more Western mode of playwriting as news of Elesin’s impending death reaches a British colonial apparatchik named Simon Pilkings (Graham Abbey) and his wife, Jane (Maev Beaty).
Pilkings is eager to make sure that there is nothing going on in his district that will make him seem as if he is not fully in command of his district while a member of the British royal family is paying a visit. While he goes off to a costume party, he sends a detachment of the local police led by a Muslim covert named Sergeant Amusa (Ngago Nabea) to stop Elesin.
This decision that Pilkings frames as a humanitarian intervention – but which is clearly about power and control – sets the play on its course toward tragedy, accentuated by the return of Elesin’s estranged son Olunde (Kwaku Adu-Poku) from England.
Since the play’s debut, however, Soyinka has asked audiences and artists to resist an interpretation of the drama as being about a “clash of cultures” – which can flatten the clashes going on within each of the characters.
It will be helpful for some audiences to see Death of The King’s Horseman at Stratford alongside Hamlet, a play with which it shares not just many of the same actors but themes of the perils of delaying action, duty to ancestors, the consequences of an older generation refusing to make space for a younger one – and a certain enduring question about whether to be or not to be.
M’Carthy’s production of Death and the King’s Horseman has the deeper sense of dramatic urgency however; the huge stakes, the sense of a universe “out of joint” due to proper customs not being followed after the death of a king, are not just articulated but deeply felt – through the profound and anchoring performance of Amo-Adem, and the insistent, unsettling drumming.
There are indelible impressions made by a trio of young Yoruba women in particular (played by isi bhakhomen, Déjah Dixon-Green and Espoir Segbeaya) who repel the men sent by Pilkings – and, indeed, by those divided souls themselves, played by Nabea and Pulga Muchochoma.
It’s difficult to imagine the white colonial couple being better portrayed than they are here by Abbey, long one of Stratford’s strongest, and Beaty, whose performances have more layers and textures than ever this season.
The hardest role to play in Death and the King’s Horseman is no doubt that of Elesin – and Santiago strikes me as still having room to go deeper into it as he grows more comfortable with its surfaces. In the show’s final scene, however, he fully rises to the occasion in a climax that left me, anyway, with my heart pounding.
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