Olivier Theatre, London SE1
  Opened 8 April, 2009

The National Theatre is having an interesting time of it on the issue of race. Their Travelex £10 season in the Olivier already included Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, which has faced accusations of racism. It has now been joined by the first significant London production in nearly 30 years of Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman, in a production with an all-black cast, some of whom “white up” to play British colonial officers in Nigeria.
In absolute terms this is racist, no less than a white actor blacking up would be. However, the crucial difference is that it is not offensive: partly because it is directed against a (still) dominant group in a position to withstand such a tactic, but also because the very notion of it being “directed against” anyone is less than accurate. What the whiteface device does here (as in a production of Genet’s The Blacks at Stratford East a couple of years ago) is to challenge us to recalibrate our perceptions and listen to the colonists’ remarks on their own terms rather than as emblems of English imperialism or whatever. The story then ceases to be one of imperial oppression (although, in a witty visual touch, a ball scene is padded out by having actors carry mannequins to whom they are joined by, almost literally, the yoke of colonialism).
The story, based on real events in 1940s Nigeria, attains a more classically tragic power in showing two forces unable to understand each other. On one side there is the Yoruba culture, in which the death of a king is followed by the suicide of his favoured liegeman to accompany him into the afterlife, failure to perform which dishonours the individual, family and entire community; on the other, the powers that be who have their own contrary code that suicide is illegal and to be prevented, even if it costs more lives. When horseman Elesin’s son Olunde, newly returned from England, informs the District Officer’s wife that “You [i.e. the English] have no respect for what you do not understand,” it is not an accusation but a simple observation. It gets the loudest applause of the evening.
Rufus Norris’s production excels in every significant aspect. It is visually breathtaking without indulging in pointless exotica; with Javier de Frutos’ choreography pervading the action. As Elesin, Nonso Anozie is as dramatically imposing as he is physically; even the shame and subjugation in the final phase radiate off him in waves. Claire Benedict as Iyaloja, the “Mother” of the local market community, shows her characteristic blend of fire and steel; how I hope she gets to play Medea again, so that this time I can see her in the role. Soyinka’s play is complex, even at times contradictory; its inclusion in this season underlines that the NT likewise shuns simplifications, which is as it should be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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