The month of July has been one of theatrical jamboree for lovers of the stage with the return of Death and The King’s Horseman at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. The play rounded-off last Sunday with a pulsating performance,
writes LANRE ODUKOYA
Granted that this is a play that has been staged over and over again, yet there was always something that felt rather refreshing about the story. Director and producer of the play, Kenneth Uphopho, echoed this sentiment: “The play has been performed over and over again but all the reviews we get to read about it say something about the ‘voluminous’ string of poetry and words. So, I decided in the course of choosing the play, to inject pace and to ensure that every actor understood the characters extensively. That way, the characters are more alive and the audience can identify with them. We also started with a workshop where we analysed, interpreted and de-mystified the play to the best of our abilities. The purpose of this was to remove the veil off the play being a difficult one to achieve.”
Staging plays that entail a huge budget outlay is often a challenge. According to the producer, “the cost of staging a play like Death and The King’s Horseman varies depending on a number of factors – venue, quality and experience of the cast, technical facilities and the rest. In our own case, we had to let go of some things that our budget couldn’t carry; but certainly not to compromise the quality of the cast. We reached out for sponsorship and nothing came of it. We got support from a couple of individuals though.”
Uphopho’s magic on the play is a plausible unbundling of the grand master’s work. Beginning with a dance session in which drummers and women surround Elesin Oba, the play’s central character. Elesin Oba (Patrick Diabuah) whose mind is being stylishly prodded by Olohun Iyo (Kenneth Uphopho), one of his associates who warns him of abandoning the people because of the women led by Iyaloja (Temitope Atitebi-Haastrup), does not seem ready to heed the counsel.
While getting lost in his wishful thought of dying so as to accompany his master, the late king, to heaven, his boisterous mention that he won’t be one to derail or delay indicates a mere promise. But as far as his verbal postulations are concerned, it’s a chosen path of destiny that he is most happy and satisfied to follow. But a woman’s comment, “We know you as a man of honour,” soon draws the ire of Elesin Oba who takes offence and is eventually decorated with new attire as the rejoicing begins again. These and more are part of the niceties he is to enjoy before he takes a bow from the stage of life.
But being a man with insatiable appetite for women, many of whom are in his house already as wives, Elesin Oba’s gaze falls on a pretty young woman who had come to greet the Iyaloja. But while the young woman leaves soon, Elesin Oba’s description of her with profound adjectives appears to be one from only a dyed-in-the-wool poet. Although the young woman is said to be “one leg in her husband’s house,” Elesin Oba’s constant urge that they do not let him step “burdened” into the unknown so he can “travel light” forces the hands of all into a decision as the matter requires profound immediacy. In fact, the bride (Temiloluwa Paul) is the betrothed of Iyaloja’s son and not wanting to hinder the imminent transition of Elesin Oba in any way, she gives in to the ordinarily incredulous request.
Simon Pilkings (Seun Kentebbe), the colonial district officer who is seen in charms-fitted regalia only worn by masquerade as he practices a dance routine with his wife, Jane (Adeola Shinaba) is interrupted by a policeman, Amusa (Omololu Shodiya). Due to the costumes worn by the couple, ready to proceed for an event, Amusa says he cannot deliver his intended message which is about death especially since they are wearing “garments of the ancestors”. Although exasperated that Amusa could believe in what he calls the “mumbo jumbo,” despite being a muslim, Pilkings orders him to write his message down on the report book. At last the message is passed, but it only leaves Pilkins and his wife more confounded.
Pilkings already has an issue with Elesin Oba a few years as he helped Olunde, son of the king’s horseman to go against his father, travelling to the United Kingdom for studies eventually and so is reluctant to confront the same man once more. But his wife wouldn’t let him be. And his statements about the “holy water nonsense” and that referring to natives as blacks pitching him against the now unhappy house help, he is left with no choice but to interfere in the matter.
Meanwhile Elesin Oba is busy with the new bride somewhere when two officers sent to arrest him are intercepted by a group of women, with especially the two youngest among them turning the hall into a centre of roaring laughter as they mimic the white men and mock the guards impressively. Elesin Oba, also called Elesin Alaafin, soon comes out of the bridal room, taking up a dilly dally manner and stylishly delaying with unnecessary monologue and eventually asking to be ushered into the market place again with songs and drumming, all to get him on his way for his ritual passage. The ritual process finally begins with the fact that all is not down to only Elesin Oba.
Inside the colonial administration, apprehensions about the situation is growing, with reports of discontent and possible break down of order getting to Pilkings, but when Amusa comes back, he still refuses to report to Pilkins, again citing the masquerade garment as an impediment and of which he is utterly scared.
Thinking he is saving Elesin Oba, Pilkings soon orders his arrest but it would lead to a tragedy in the long run, one which could only make him wish he did not get involved at all.
The scene featuring an argument between Olunde, Elesin Oba’s son who is now a doctor-in-training, is definitely one of the many ever remarkable highlights of the play. And Elesin Oba’s son, Olunde (Austin Anuocha) who returns from England with fury of sentiments of being attached to his culture burning bright despite his four-year stay in England, throw Pilkings off his feet many times. The scene of his argument with Jane is definitely one of the highlights of the play and a major theme is entrenched when Elesin Oba confesses about new insights of the world brought to him by the longing for the new bride which make his strength fail him when the time comes.
Uphopho explained why he had to feature in the drama despite being the director. “I acted in it because I’m an actor as well and I also wanted to be a part of history. Acting in a Wole Soyinka play is no joke. Secondly, I also needed a very strong support for the lead actor, Patrick Diabuah (Elesin Oba) and I suppose I just fit in nicely according to my stage manager, Ibukun Fasunhan.”