DEATH AND THE KING'S HORSEMAN by Wole Soyinka, directed by Ronald Weihs, with Donald Carr, Tony Adah, Sistah Lois Jacob, Ian Morfitt, Catherine Harrison and Ayo Adewumi. Presented by AfriCan Theatre Ensemble and Artword at Artword (75 Portland). Runs to May 30, Thursday-Saturday 8:15 pm, matinee Sunday 4 pm. $25, stu/srs $15. 416-366-7723 ext 290. Rating: NN Rating: NN
At certain points during the two-and-three-quarter-hour play Death And The King's Horseman , I thought, "Gee, I'd rather be reading this." Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka 's epic play set in 1945 Nigeria demands the closest attention - and a worthy production. Inspired by a true incident, it shows the fallout from British colonialists disrupting African traditions.
A Yoruba king has recently died, and within a month the king's horseman, Elesin ( Donald Carr ), is expected to join him by committing ritual suicide. But not if the resident district officer ( Ian Morfitt ) and his nosy wife ( Catherine Harrison ) have anything to do with it.
Add a chorus of village women and Elesin's son ( Ayo Adewumi ), who returns from England where he's been educated, and you've got the makings of a full-scale tragedy, rich with poetry and ideas.
Written in five acts, the play has a classical structure, and the language ranges from ornate and metaphorical for the more formal scenes to down-right earthy when we're on the street.
You need highly professional actors - on the scale of a Soulpepper or Shaw - to do justice to a piece like this. On the level of diction alone, the 20-person cast in this AfriCan Theatre Ensemble/Artword production is uneven. Even Carr, though physically impressive and emotionally committed to the material, fails to convey all the nuances of the text.
Director Ronald Wiehs tries to open up the staging by using the central staircase in the audience, but there's lots of confusion in the opening act, and a key character - the horseman's praise-singer ( Tony Adah ) - remains opaque.
More successful are the scenes about bumbling bureaucrats or women gossiping in the marketplace.
Consider this an introduction to an ambitious, important play. Let's hope a richer staging is in the works in the future.