Death and the King’s Horseman

I watched Heat once on a plane, with those tinny headphones that come to you in a plastic bag with a tube of toothpaste and a cotton bud and are so ineffectual you catch about half what’s going on. As a result, I learnt two lessons. One, bring your own headphones on planes. Two, when you miss a piece of dialogue in a Michael Mann film, no matter how inconsequential it might seem, you’ll never understand what happens next.

The next time I saw Heat, I concentrated. Hard. I listened to every word of dialogue on the assumption that something in there was bound to be important, no matter how little sense it made at the time. And I got it.

Death and the King’s Horseman calls for something of the same approach to theatregoing. It’s seriously hard going (especially in the first half when much of the dialogue takes the form – literally – of riddles). But if you stick with it, concentrate, and listen hard to everything anyone says, it also turns out to be brilliant.

Nobel prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka’s plot is, at base, simple: a Nigerian king has died and, in accordance with tradition, his horseman is expected to respond by committing ritual suicide. But the British are in power, and when a colonial official gets wind of the rite and tries to stop it, he brings calamity on all concerned.

Woven into the tale are two separate themes: the natural succession of things from the older generation to the younger and the incessant desire of men to understand what drives those different from them, coupled with their almost pathological inability to do so.

So how do things unfold? As I mentioned, with difficulty. The first half takes place predominantly amongst the natives as they prepare the king’s horseman, Elesin, for his death. There’s a party atmosphere going on, with much dancing (exquisitely choreographed), singing and beautiful, beautiful production design. Flames flicker at the edge of the stage, earth is scattered with brooms, men stand in for bushes tousled in the wind.

And then come the riddles. Elesin recounts the tale of the “Not-I bird”, while the players (and the audience) beg him to make some sense. Then he throws a hissy fit. But it’s not a real hissy fit. Possibly. Then everyone dances a bit and Elesin sees a pretty girl. And then Elesin exercises his right to sow his seed in the corporeal world by marrying the pretty girl and having his way with her before he dies. Plantain (bananas, sort of) analogies follow.

So far, so what the…? The action then shifts to the colonists, who, having heard what’s happening, send out their emissaries – Nigerians employed by the British as police – to prevent the suicide, while trying to ensure that a society ball goes ahead as planned. Hilarious scenes ensue as the native women impede their attempts, mimicking the mannerisms of the colonists as they do so.

But as the lights go out on the first half, it still doesn’t make much sense.

You’ll have to trust me on this, but, provided you’ve been following the Michael Mann interpretive approach, the second half does bring it all together. Or rather, tears it all apart. The natives’ world falls apart. The colonists’ world falls apart. Everything falls apart and you realise that you understand every single character on the stage, that you hate them all, and that you love them all. Which, for any artistic work, play or otherwise, is an astonishing achievement.

Aside from the headache-inducing buildup, Death and the King’s Horseman has everything in its favour. A large ensemble cast, led by Nonso Anozie as Elesin, Giles Terera and Claire Benedict as the leading figures among the natives and Lucian Msmati and Jenny Jules as the colonial official and his wife, deliver uniformly brilliant performances, whether dancing and singing, playing the drums, just plain acting or (I kid you not) performing as human furniture. The production design remains superlative throughout and the costumes aren’t far off, either.

And there’s a gimmick that isn’t a gimmick: the colonists are played by black actors in white makeup. At first, it’s played for comedy and works well. But the real value of the ruse comes later on, when you realise it lets you empathise with the colonists in a way that would be unthinkable with white actors.

This would be pretty close to what I’d call a perfect production but for the complexity of the material. As far as I’m concerned Death and the King’s Horseman is a must-see. But you might want to practise with a copy of Heat first.