Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Onstage at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival

Akosua Amo-Adem. Photo credit: David Hou

Joe Szekeres

'Death and the King's Horseman' hits deep to the emotional core

I had the opportunity to hear this play as part of Soulpepper’s ‘Around the World in 80 Plays’ series in June 2021 when the theatres were shut down for the pandemic. At that time, the audio version was also directed by Tawiah M’Carthy.

Seeing it live for the first time, I noticed just how incredible of an epic spectacle it became for me but the play’s conclusion hits deep to my emotional core. I had forgotten ‘Horseman’ was based on actual events from Nigeria during World 2. Under colonial British rule, the village was trying to uphold its culture amid the struggle of the British who considered Elesin’s action horrific and awful. District Officer Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, epitomize the lack of cultural understanding.

Given the fact that our country remains in mourning over the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, this play hit even harder for me.

In the first act, we meet the King’s Horseman, Elesin Oba (Anthony Santiago). His Yoruba King has already passed away. Tradition states that the Horseman is to follow his King to death, and yes this means Elesin must kill himself. Elesin considers this act of suicide an honour to fulfil, and he plans to follow through.

But before he does this, Elesin plans to marry the most beautiful girl in the village, have the wedding night and the consummation, then fulfil his promise to follow his King into the afterlife. Elesin knows he is most handsome and doesn’t hide this fact, but some of the women in the village take him to task for his actions.

There is the Praise Singer, Olohun-iyo (Amaka Umeh) and Mother of the Market, Iyaloja (Akosua Amo-Adem). These women stand up to Elesin for his bravado. But to complicate things even further, Elesin selects as his bride a woman who was promised in marriage to the young son of Iyaloja.

We then meet Simon and Jane Pilkings (Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty) who are preparing for a costume party and are quite disrespectful as they are wearing costumes which take on a completely different meaning for the Yoruba culture. Rather than removing the costumes out of respect, the Pilkings flagrantly disregard and continue to wear them. To me, this seems as if the British at this time were forcefully (perhaps violently?) robbing the people of their traditions and enforcing Christianity on them.

Rachel Forbes’ set design works extremely well on the new Patterson stage. There is so much to take in at the marketplace setting at the top of the show I just sat for a few moments and looked. Sarah Uwadiae’s colourful costume designs are outstanding. I really liked Debashis Sinha’s opening soundtrack of voices in the marketplace as I knew I wasn’t in Stratford anymore but overseas in another place and time. The off-stage sound of the distant drumming perfectly resonated just enough to create interest as to what might come next once it ceased. I also loved hearing the incorporation of the music and the dancing in the marketplace which, once again, made me aware I was not in my home country. I was in another country and living vicariously through the times.

What struck me about the audio story when I first heard it as part of Soulpepper’s series? It was poetic language and visually appealing imagery. I remember just closing my eyes as I wanted to hear the words being spoken last year. I didn’t have to do this today as the actors solidly captured the sounds for me.
Tawiah M’Carthy’s direction remains unhesitating throughout the entire production. Not only do the actors continue to capture the poetic language and rhythmic free verse style (most noteworthy in the opening scene in the market, but also the cultural representation issues strongly remain at the forefront throughout the nearly three-hour running time.

Anthony Santiago and Amaka Umeh are extraordinarily impressive in their respective performances as they both regally command the stage with passionate ardour. Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty mightily capture that distinct colonial aloofness in their scoffing of native belief as they mock how Sergeant Amusa (Ngabo Nabea) reacts to their wearing of the sacred clothing connected to death. Nabea resoundingly revealed his escalating frustration and anger over the times he was called back by the Pilkings.

As Olunde (Elesin’s eldest son), Kwaku Adu-Poku sharply handles how he feels about the cultural issues between Nigeria and Britain. Olunde has dutifully returned home when he hears the King has died. Olunde has been studying medicine in England for four years, but is not happy about the state of England. I love the line when Jane Pilkings asks Olunde if he is upset by what they wear. No. Olunde is not upset but he tells her: “You have no respect for that which you do not understand.” A perfect comeback to this cultural representation of the era.

Final Comments: ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ is a long one clocking in at nearly three hours; nevertheless, the strength of this production lies in the detailed script to the eventual build to the tragic outcome in the second act that I had completely forgotten and was completely shocked when it does occur.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.

‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ runs to October 29 at the Tom Patterson Theatre. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ by Wole Soyinka

Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy
Set Designer: Rachel Forbes
Costume Designer: Sarah Uwadiae
Lighting Designer: Christopher Dennis
Sound Designer: Debashis Sinha

Cast: Amaka Umeh, Anthony Santiago, Akosua Amo-Adem, Graham Abbey, Maev Beaty, Ngabo Nabea, Pulga Muchochoma, Kwaku Adu-Poku, Josue Laboucane, Kevin Kruchkywich, Tyrone Savage, isi bhakhomen, Dejah Dixon-Green, Espoir Segbeaya, Celia Aloma Ijeoma Emesowum Bola Aiyeola, Norman Yeung, Matthew Kabwe, Andrea Rankin, Rachel Jones

Onstage Musicians/Drummers: Amade Dedeu Garcia, Adekunle Olorundare (Kunle), Erik Samuel, Oluwakayode Sodunke

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