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Adefila’s touch refreshes Death and the King’s Horseman


A scene from the play

A scene from the play

Boss of Crown Troupe of Africa, Segun Adefila, has over the years built his stage reputation on the subversion of the norm for innovative dramatic outcomes. In his 20 years of performing on the Nigerian theatre and elsewhere, he has brought certain stage engineering that always awes the audience with its eclectic deployment of unusual performance tools.
And so, when the troupe staged Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman, to bring to a close its week-long 20th anniversary celebration on August 8, Adefila’s directorial acumen came to the fore. He broke the monotony and boredom of otherwise tedious dialogues. Venue was the main stage at the Freedom Park, Lagos Island.
Indeed, only Adefila’s theatrical ingenuity could have wrought that kind of innovation to enliven Soyinka’s lengthy dialogues, with its many twists and metaphoric turns that are rich in proverbs and wise quips. So, Elesin Oba (the king’s horseman who is scheduled to die and accompany his principal – the late Oba – as his horseman in the realm of death, to lead and guide the Oba) has Michael Okorie and Tobi Odunsi alternately playing the complex part. Also, his wife, Olohun Iyo, is in turn, played by Sunmisola Taiwo and Olajumoke Lawal, while Iyaloja (market women leader) is played by Gloria Oghenejakpo and Abiodun Adefila respectively.
What comes through in this innovative rendering is a superb, alternating narration that gave brevity and lightness to a convoluting, complex dramatic plot. Of course, the rich, or what some might call the dense poetry, for which Soyinka is known, is still there, his many hunter and farmer’s bantering metaphors are all there as well; even the lewd character of Elesin Oba is at its steamiest with Iyalojo and her market women as they banter with the man who is to lead the late king on his homeward journey. And, even Elesin Oba’s immoral nature that eventually gets the better of him for which he is unable to perform his role thereby upsetting the balance of the natural cause of the communal wellbeing are vividly brought forth to the admiration of the audience.
Soyinka’s 82 birthday was celebrated last month, July, and it might have informed Adefila’s choice of the play to close Crown Troupe of Africa’s anniversary celebration. Specifically, it was to pay tribute to the stage giant who is easily a role model for many dramatists, including Adefila, who, incidentally, performed in and directed the literary sage’s Dance Of The Forests at Soyinka’s Ijegba forest home in Abeokuta last year when he turned 81.
Indeed, traditions die hard. Otherwise, why would another man elect to die and serve as cushion for another, royalty or not? That is the crux of the matter. And to remember that a similar incident humourously played out recently in Ile-Ife, although it was strongly denied, bears testimony to Soyinka’s dramatic preoccupation. When the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade died last year, it was rumoured that the man who was to die and accompany him in the same eternal journey, one ‘Abobaku’, broke with tradition and simply took to his heels to save his skin, many thought it was a joke. It, perhaps, sounded comical, but it is part of a grim tradition that dies too slowly, and it explains why ‘Abobaku’ broke with the norm.
Like Elesin Oba in Death And The King’s Horseman, Abobaku had tasted too much of the world’s goodness to want to die for his Oba. And there is far too much to be enjoyed here on earth to warrant him hurrying to the other realm merely in obedience to royal and traditional demands. He simply elects another fate for himself. So, too, does Elesin Oba, who, on the threshold of his imminent death, elects to taste a maiden already betrothed to another. He wants it as his final act of virginal pleasure on earth, with the hope that he would leave something behind for himself, as he embarks on his journey of no return.

He would not heed Iyaloja’s warning not to burden himself with such earthly trifling on the eve of his departure. And so, he tastes the virginity of the maiden and finds himself trapped and unable to perform his ultimate rite of passage.
His case is made worse by the District Officer (DO), Mr. Pilkings (Anyalewechi Alozie), who intervenes, as his duty demands and stops Elesin Oba from self-immolation. Elesin Oba’s son, Olunde (Abolade Gbolahan) on medical training abroad, arrives for his father’s funeral, but walks right in the centre of the drama of ultimate disgrace –– that his father is unable to fulfill his pact with tradition, amplified by the devious plot of the DO to stop his father from performing his duty. When Elesin Oba eventually fails in his duty, it becomes the lot of his son to fit into the grisly role. By the time the father realises the calamity of his inaction, which he blames on the spell wrought on him by having to taste of virginity of the maiden, which Iyaloja warned him against, it is too late. He commits suicide in the DO’s prison.
Apart from The Jero Plays and The Loin and the Jewel, Soyinka’s other plays are as exciting as they are complex. His use of poetic lines and varied metaphors sometimes makes his plays a handful for actors. Death And The King’s Horseman is not an exception, but Crown Troupe of Africa interpreted it gracefully. The only snag was Tobi Odunsi who co-played Elesin Oba and stumbled in his lines a great deal. His co-cast, Michael Okorie, coped extremely well and saved the moment for his co-cast, Odunsi, and the entire performance.

In this article:
Segun AdefilaWole Soyinka
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