Crown Troupe’s Crowning Touch

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Yinka Olatunbosun reports on Crown Troupe’s performance of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, directed by Segun Adefila, in commemoration of the theatre company’s two decades of showmanship

Like the fillings in a sumptuous snack, the week marking the 20th anniversary of the theatre company, Crown Troupe of Africa was packed with a variety of rich cultural offerings- music, dance, poetry and other stage performances. In collaboration with other theatre groups such as Oxygen Productions, Kininso Concepts, One-Six Production, Renegade Theatre and others, the Eko Theatre Carnival presented a week-long non-stop nightlife entertainment for fun-seeking Lagosians who thronged to the Freedom Park on Lagos Island to enjoy movie screenings, art discussions and afro centric music in a park-like environment. The climax of them all was Crown Troupe’s performance of Wole Soyinka’s classic tragedy, Death and the King’s Horseman.

Calm is one thing that Sunday is known for in Lagos but for two hours, Segun Adefila, the founder of Crown Troupe, was allowed to disturb the otherwise straight-line frequency of the city with the fast-paced production of Soyinka’s play. With lines soaked in proverbs and poetry, the technique of duality was deployed to portray the characters of Elesin and Iyalode. Culture-conflict remains the main thrust of the drama which is demonstrated through the characters of Simon Pilkings and the Yoruba community where the play is set.

Death and The King’s Horseman is based on the true story of Elesin, the King’s Horseman. According to Yoruba tradition, the death of a chief or King must be followed by the ritual suicide of the chief’s horseman, because the horseman’s spirit is essential to helping the chief’s spirit ascend to the afterlife. If not, the chief’s spirit will roam the earth, bringing evil to the Yoruba people. The first half of the play shows the process of this ritual, with the potent, life-loving figure Elesin living out his final day in celebration before the ritual process begins.

He even takes for himself a new bride inspite of the warning by Iyalode. The local British colonial ruler, Simon Pilkings, intervenes, condemning the ritual suicide as barbaric and illegal. He arrested him to ensure he didn’t commit the suicide. Elesin’s son, Olunde, a medical student in England, has returned to perform the burial rites of his father but upon his discovery of his father’s arrest, he decidedly committed the suicide in respect of the tradition to preserve his family name.

His father commits suicide when he was confronted with the body of his son not out of duty but shamefacedly. The drama is essentially a representation of the Yoruba worldview. In Yoruba cosmology, there are three worlds: the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world of the unborn and are believed to be linked by the transition stage which is considered as the pathway on which members of the different worlds meet and interact.

There’s no better venue to reignite the colonial drama other than the Freedom Park which is a former colonial prison. Memories of how African traditions are flagrantly disregarded were evoked and more importantly, the self-searching, thought-provoking dilemma of choosing to either be rational or cultural is revisited through the play based on a real-life incident.

The playwright, Soyinka, had arguably documented the play as a cultural reference point making it an interesting text for critics of African literature. But the purpose of this review is not to validate the points already made by some of these critics but to make an informed assessment of the play in performance last Sunday.

Adefila is not new to the theatre. He’s one of the first rate contemporary theatre directors in Nigeria who doesn’t seek media attention to project his artistry but had earned it through hard-work and a resilience spirit. Beginning with his days at the University of Lagos, where he studied Creative Arts, Adefila conceived the group as a theatre workshop to groom budding talents for a viable career in performing art. His performances are energetic; his productions are big turn-offs for many lazy feet.

It is no surprise that Adefila had grown from strength-to-strength; rehearsing in Bariga, National Theatre premises, open spaces, Terra Kulture and Freedom Park. He’s probably the first to discover the park as a theatre venue following the crises that rocked the National theatre on the report of its sale and the protest marches that followed.

Adorned in dreadlocks and his rastafari cap, Adefila is a “dreadful entity’’ in Nigerian theatre space for his use of art as a strong weapon in fighting societal ills. He has integrated the Brechtian techniques of theatre production in his performances and the choreography became a signature at every production he directs. He gives life to the drama text, lights up the stage like a carefully wrapped Indian hemp while receiving applause that rise steadily like the incense from a burning cigarette butt.

No one expected anything less than a challenging play for the group’s 20th anniversary. Besides, Adefila is too daring to choose a play like Childe Internationale when he had once directed A Dance of the Forest in tribute to Soyinka at 80. It’s been argued that Soyinka’s plays are better read than staged but since Adefila started adding his contemporary touch to the Soyinka’s aesthetics, the plays become easier to comprehend and enjoy. So was the case of Death and the King’s Horseman. Some may argue that the actors tend to over-do this “modernity” that is added to the lines and delivery. Maybe they do. But one thing any one cannot deny is that every character comes alive on Adefila’s stage.

Last Sunday’s performance was witnessed by an audience that was a variant of theatre students, actors, playwrights, theatre critics, journalists and artists who had acted several roles in the same play in past productions. It was only natural to expect a critical reception. The modest use of costumes was pardoned for that had been the nature of Crown Troupe’s minimalist approach to productions. But the diction for the white characters was certainly not palatable.

Even the compere, Shuaibu Hassan, couldn’t help but tease the director for engaging an actor from Edo to deliver cockney accent. It was dead-on-arrival, turning the tragic play to comedy. Look at Pilkings and his wife. They struggled to deliver American in lieu of British intonation to convince the audience that they are “British’’ and the ball scene was poorly executed with the poor use of costumes.

Some directors have use the white plastic nose as a symbolic prop to depict a Caucasian and make up for the non-availability of funds to engage a white actor to play the role. The actors made a mockery of the distinguished roles with the lack of conviction in the characterisations. The Pilkings tried their best but a few instances of mother-tongue interference got in the way of a successful ride to finish.

What then was the need for having a double cast for Elesin on stage when the actual Elesin didn’t master his lines before the production? He made our hearts skip several beats every time he paused to catch his line and his prompter sometimes forgot he needed to turn off the microphone. During some of the scene changes, many forgetful actors kept talking backstage into the microphones with the audience listening.

The Iyalode was also under-dressed in cheap Adire. Iyalode is a powerful Yoruba matriarch and the only female in the royal household that is part of the King’s think-tank. Her role in the drama has both historical and cultural significance and for the sake of the foreigners in the audience, Iyalode character should at least convey her status and societal magnitude. Thankfully, Iyalode didn’t “dab” during the well-choreographed curtain call that featured shoki moves and the likes.

Another oversight for the director is the use of weave-on by one of the market women. Also, another one wore full braids with contemporary attachment in a play that was first staged in 1975. Asides these, the performance was neatly done, properly directed, well-timed and understandable. It was also a reminder than contemporary theatre in Nigeria needs funding to achieve its full potential of contributing to the nation’s economy, producing exportable art and reducing unemployment rates.