Death and the King’s Horseman, OSF 2009

photo by Jenny Graham

photo by Jenny Graham

[N.B. Bardolatry owes its opportunity to comment early on this marvelous production to director Chuck Smith, who generously offered the parishioners of Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church the opportunity to see the dress rehearsal on February 11. Ah, the bennies of living in beautiful Ashland, Oregon! The good news for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in this recession…we’ll be buying tickets for a second viewing.]

On a website devoted to reviewing productions of Shakespeare, “spoiler alerts” are largely unnecessary, so famiiar are the plots of the Bard’s classic plays. But for those contemplating seeing this production of Wole Soyinka’s 1975 Death and the King’s Horseman, I’d like to issue one straightaway: By all means, go see it, it is a gorgeous production; but if you know nothing about the play—about the plot or its background—my best recommendation is to quit reading this post right now, and avoid reading the material in the playbill till after you’ve seen it. We went into the dress rehearsal cold, there were no playbills yet available, and as a result we had one of those rare and wonderful experiences of complete theatrical surprise.

So consider yourself warned: Spoiler Alert.

Here’s the plot of the first half, in a nutshell, from Wikipedia:

According to a Yoruba tradition, the death of the Chief must be followed by the ritual suicide of the Chief’s Horseman as the Horseman’s spirit is essential to helping the Chief’s spirit ascend to the afterlife. Otherwise the Chief’s spirit will wander the earth and bring harm to the Yoruba people. The first half of the play documents the process of this ritual, with the potent, life-loving figure Elesin living out his final day in celebration before the final process begins.

The “celebration” for the larger-than-life Elesin—Derrick Lee Weeden in one of his finest roles—involves one last fling with a young beauty he spots in the Market—this, in spite of the dire warnings of the Mother of the Market, Iyaloja (Perri Gaffney) that it could bring about tragedy.

photo by Jenny Graham

photo by Jenny Graham

And what a gorgeous marketplace it is! No wonder Elesin is reluctant to leave it. In terms of lighting, set and costume design, this is one of the most beautiful productions I have ever seen. My daughter, who makes elaborate Irish Dance costumes for a living, was sitting beside me fairly drooling over the fabrics throughout the entire first half. The mix of royal blues and golds with earthier hues creates a vibrant African palette perfectly suiting the poetic language and lust-for-life energy of the protagonist, Elesin.

The visual vibrancy is counterpointed by a magically evocative trio of African drummers that literally lead the audience into the theatre, transporting the viewers like Yoruban Pied Pipers into another time, another world. For me, it was something like seeing Tolkien’s Shire for the first time in Fellowship of the RIng—exotic yet homey, poetic yet earthy, warm but dramatic, all at the same time; like a place you’ve visited in one of your lovelier dreams, and would rather like to stay in for a while. The contrast/complementarity of high diction, metaphors drawn from nature, and the most fundamental of subject matters (sex! death!) was little short of Shakespearean.

Knowing nothing about the play or its author, I assumed we were seeing a story from ancient times, before the Europeans and slavers arrived; perhaps drawn from myth or some ancient tale passed down through the generations in one of those Yoruban markets. Indeed, the complete (for lack of better words) unmodernness, un-Westernness of the show’s first half made it all the more shocking, after we see, as in a dream, Elesin’s death-dance, to return from intermission and have the second half open on a garish, bright-white scene from a wholly different culture: a European-style drawing room where a couple of WWI-era British colonials, dressed up like thoughtless children in African ceremonial robes, practice (to a cheesy tango recording, no less) their dance moves for tonight’s ball in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales. To this audience member, it felt like a bucket of icewater poured over my head.

Remember Achebe’s take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Even if Conrad was no Kiplingesque apologist for colonialism, his little masterpiece is notwithstanding so wholly imbued with a (fundamentally racist) European viewpoint that the Africans come off to the reader as wholly alien, wholy “other”. That’s how most of us in the English-speaking world are used to seeing things. This play turns the tables on that situation more effectively than anything I’ve ever seen—hence my wish that playgoers could see it, as I did, without backstory.

photo by Jenny Graham

photo by Jenny Graham

The upshot is, story-wise, upon learning of the ritual suicide about to take place, the well-meaning-but-clueless British officer, Simon Pilkings, cannot resist “putting in his oar”. He takes the already hesitating Elesin prisoner, bringing dishonor on the Horseman and cultural disaster to the people—a disaster which can only be set to rights by a tragic death. The fact that all this is taking place in the middle of the first World War (“all Europe went into the making of Kurtz!”), with its millions of casualties in the name of…what?…only serves to underline the racist absurdity of the situation.

Or, as Iyaloja says in what surely must be the most quotable line in the play: “To prevent one death, you will actually make other deaths? Ah, great is the wisdom of the white race!

A couple of casting notes: With his kingly presence and a voice made for poetry, I can’t imagine a better actor to play Elesin than Derrick Lee Weeden; his gifts make the play’s central turn all the more tragic. Perri Gaffney as Iyaloja was a force to be reckoned with; I can well imagine future generations of black actresses ready to walk over corpses to get this juicy part, reminiscent to me of Margaret in Richard III.

We’ll report back when we see the play again, later in the season. Definitely one of the “musts” of the 2009 Oregon Shakespeare Festival!

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