There are moments of tragic beauty in this play, largely thanks to Nonso Anozie in the title role of Elesin, the horseman of the king who is doomed by traditional custom to follow his dead master into the spirit world. Anozie's Nigerian family background and his towering stage presence made him a natural choice for this role. I first saw him a few years ago playing a magnificent Lear in an RSC Academy production directed by Declan Donnellan at the Young Vic. He was then an outstanding Othello for Donnellan's Cheek By Jowl company, and he's acted on the Olivier stage before, in David Mamet's Edmond with Kenneth Branagh. There are very few young British actors who have his kind of charisma, though his massive physique (he looks as though he could push back an eight-man rugby scrum single-handed) may be a handicap when it comes to getting cast. He effortlessly dominates the stage and in the final scene of Wole Soyinka's play attains a real Shakespearean grandeur. Elesin's death is foretold and planned, but doesn't happen; it's not clear whether this is entirely because of the intervention of Pilkings, the British district commissioner who is determined to stop his ritual suicide, or whether Elesin himself has hesitated on the brink of death.
Rufus Norris's production with an all-black cast is spectacular and exotic, with a wonderful mixture of movement and dance, helped by Katrina Lindsay's rich and evocative designs. The rest of the cast, led by Claire Benedict and Giles Terera, give Anozie strong support. The surreal scene of a whites-only fancy dress ball somewhere in the African bush performed by black actors with whited-up faces, is especially striking. The old-fashioned colonial diction of Pilkings and his wife Jane (Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules) sounds just right. My real reservations are about the play, which seems to me unbalanced and flawed, and Norris's production tends to emphasise its weak points. As a parable about colonialism, or a satire, Soyinka's play falls flat. Not only are some of the scenes too long, repetitive and awkwardly constructed, but the British colonial officials are cheap cardboard caricatures who can't be taken seriously. Pilkings is so absurd, especially in this production, that none of his arguments are worth listening to. Instead of giving the devil all the best speeches in Shavian fashion, Soyinka stacks all the cards in favour of one side. The rosy message of this play is that African culture is unremittingly noble and valuable and colonial attempts to interfere with it are based on ignorance. My argument with that is largely an aesthetic one; the lack of a real argument over values weakens the play. The colonial experience is a wonderful theme for theatre, but a really radical production would have rethought this play and made the unfortunate Pilkings the hero and heroine. Othello and The Tempest (particularly the recent Market Theatre/RSC production) both remind us that the real drama of colonialism is an interior one -- how its values become internalised by those who serve it. But in this play the colonial police sergeant Amusa is just a figure of fun, beaten up by the market women and robbed of his trousers. Elesin and his British-educated son Olunde are in conflict, but the big confrontation between them never really happens.
I don't mind the British being treated as ridiculous figures of fun, but I feel there's a more nuanced argument to be had about colonialism, multiculturalism and religious values. Ritual suicide may be fine and dandy, but how about human sacrifice, polygamy and female circumcision? The British in India stamped out the ritual suicide of widows, known as suttee, but they didn't interfere much with marriage customs. The subtlety of British colonial rule and its sophistication was that it mostly left indigenous rulers, beliefs and customs intact rather than trying to impose the standards and practices of British suburbia. You wouldn't know it from this play, in which the satire is clunky and the real arguments are sidestepped.
Recently the National Theatre was briefly picketed by misguided protesters who found Richard Bean's England People Very Nice to be racist (I didn't). Perhaps they should go and see this play and protest on behalf of the Pilkings.