Tuesday, 21 April 2009


21/04/09, National (Olivier)

2hrs 20 mins. A big play (in all sorts of ways) by Wole Soyinka, about the clash of cultures in colonial Nigeria. Reviews were mixed: we thought it was a cracker.

I've left it too long (nearly three weeks) to write this up, so this is an impressionistic account.

Lots of movement and dance, combining the work of a Nigerian called Peter Badejo and the western choreographer Javier de Frutos. Especially liked the white folks' ball, with everyone in 18th century fancy dress and the numbers swelled by dancers bearing dummies on milkmaids' ... things (yokes?).

The principal setting an African market with loads of people, colourful costumes and an extraordinary central bit of set from which at one point long lines off which hung clothes were stretched out to the far corners of the set.

The colonial Brits were played by black actors in white face, in a neat reversal of the old convention that had black characters played by blacked-up whites: it worked well for the most part, not least because the colonial officer was played by Lucian Msamati, a wonderful actor we've also seen as Arturo Ui at the Lyric and in a top-notch play about Rwandan genocide at the West Yorkshire Playhouse called The Overwhelming. They are of course British actors, so the fact that they can do upper-class British accents should come as no surprise. Only one failed to convince: a young subaltern was far too thickset.

At the heart of the play was a nice ambiguity: a month after the king's death, on the day of his burial, the king's horseman is due to commit ritual suicide to escort him into the afterlife. But he doesn't. Is it because the Brits, appalled at the notion, have stepped in to foil him at the last moment? Or because he finds life (and his new wife, taken for the occasion) too appealing to leave? The question is left open.

At the play's tragic end, though, the horseman's son, sent off to London to train as a doctor, commits suicide in his place and the old man hangs himself.

Rufus Norris, the (white) director, apparently spent some years in Nigeria as a young child.

Claire Benedict, an actress I haven't always warmed to, played the part of the wise old woman with tremendous authority. Nonso Anozie (new to me) played the horseman with enormous relish.

The language was poetic, the accents quite thick and it took a while to get attuned to. But once attuned, it was rewarding.

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