Dazzling Display of a Clash of Cultures

By Jongh, Nicholas De | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 9, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Dazzling Display of a Clash of Cultures

Jongh, Nicholas De, The Evening Standard (London, England)

THEATRE DEATH AND THE KING'S HORSEMAN National's Olivier, SE1 .. .. .. .. ..


A THRILLING culture shock has been arranged, immersing us in the unfamiliar philosophy and religious traditions of Nigeria's Yoruba people.

The Olivier stage is beset by interesting strangeness. An agitation of drum-beats communicates anxiety; an anti-hero slips into a trance; women are variously caught in song and euphoric dance, carrying wicker baskets on their heads and at the climactic finale swaying side to side, intoning a funeral dirge; a fancy- dress ball parades puppets and humans in 17th-century European costumes; black actors wear white masks to impersonate the leisured, white ruling class: in this last instance the imaginative director, Rufus Norris, is reprising Jean Genet's brilliant tactic in The Blacks, to help make a thorough mockery of Anglo-Saxon, upper- middle class voices.

The extraordinary Death and the King's Horseman, by Nobel prize- winning Wole Soyinka, has never been seen in London although it premiered more than 30 years ago.

Imbued with the fatalistic spirit of classic Greek tragedy, and inspired by a real-life suicide in Nigeria during 1946, though the action is back-dated to 1943, Soyinka's drama looks back in anger to a conflict that erupts in an ancient Yoruba city. A British colonial officer intervenes to stop a ritual suicide, with quite the wrong fatal results.

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