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Death and the King’s Horseman review at Olivier National London

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Rufus Norris’ revival of Wole Soyinka’s 1975 exploration of the crass – and tragic – insensitivity of colonial rule in forties Nigeria is visually and aurally stunning thanks to Katrina Lindsay’s spectacular designs and Ian Dickinson’s sound design. The former gives us a gigantic unfolding three-dimensional sky blue umbrella-style washing line to represent the roof of the market and servants disguised as spooky furniture at the British residence. The latter makes sure that we never for a second forget we’re in Africa with its mysterious nocturnal whoops, whistles and rumbles.

Nonso Anonzie gives a towering, deep-throated, performance as Elesin, the late king’s horseman who should now, according to custom commit ritual suicide, but is stopped at the 11th hour by the local British colonial officer. Anonzie’s moving performance makes Elesin as troubled as Othello and as misunderstood and misguided as Lear.

He is very ably supported by Claire Benedict’s elegant wisdom as Iyaloja and by Koban Holdbrook-Smith who plays Elesin’s son fresh from four years’ medical training in Britain. At heart a dignified African like his father, Holdbrook-Smith’s Olunde makes it clear, when the going gets serious, that his Britishness is only superficial. “I have discovered,” he remarks of her race to a British woman, “that you do not respect what you do not understand” – a rather splendid summary of racial intolerance worldwide.

The characters who have no dignity at all in this play, which is often very funny, are the British – played to hilarious effect by whited up black actors. And the scene in the market when a group of women mimic distorted British diction and absurd, inhibited leg crossing is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the theatre for a long time.

The other great strength of this production is its immaculate balletic ensemble work which includes singing and on stage musicians. Fine theatre indeed.

Production Information

Olivier, National, London, April 8-June 17

Wole Soyinka
Rufus Norris
National Theatre
Cast includes
Nonso Anozie, Claire Benedict, Lucian Msamati, Jenny Jules, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Derek Ezenagu, Daniel Poyser, Medina Ajikawo
Running time
2hrs 20mins

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