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‘I had to get into Elesin’s head, went deep’ to direct ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ – Austen-Peters

‘I wondered how I would feel knowing that I had to commit suicide to follow my King to another world. So someone must have to mess with my mind to believe this. Some level of spiritual brainwashing and belief had to take place. I then concocted my own spiritual walk. What kind of fortification would they have offered him to give him that emotional and mental stability…’

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Rotimi Fakunle as Elesin

BOLANLE Austen-Peters is in the face and heart of many  patrons of the theatre this season.

She is handling one of the testiest drama projects of all season:

Wole Soyinka’s classic, Death and the King’s Horseman, the rarely staged play, widely believed to have been the pivot to Soyinka winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Thus the attention of the entire theatre family, and especially critics is on the lawyer-social worker turned high networth theatre-film director, producer and Art-preneur, waiting to see how she would deliver on the humongous theatrical project.

Opened on Boxing Day, the play runs till January 3 at the Bolanle Austen-Peters-led Terra Kulture Arena in Victoria Island, the first of such culture-space in Nigeria.

Based on events that took place in ancient Oyo kingdom in 1946, the play reflects on the intertwined lives of Elesin Oba, the king’s chief horseman; his son, Olunde, studying medicine in England; and Simon Pilkings, the colonial district officer. The king has died and Elesin, his chief horseman, is expected by law and custom to commit suicide and accompany his ruler to heaven. The stage is set for a dramatic climax when Pilkings learns of the ritual and decides to intervene and Elesin’s son arrives home.

Produced by the BAP Productions, the play boasts of one of the longest theatrical run this yuletide with 18 shows in nine days at one venue, the Terra Kulture Arena, home of the producing company.

Thus far, the reviews have been good, even from critics and cynics alike. Most have applauded BAP’s unique approach to the densely poetic and ritualistic play that has over the decades, tested the intellectual might and resources of many other directors and producers.

Known for her highly ambitious and commercially successful musical theatre shows — Saro, Wakaa, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, Moremi etc, and her films, 93Days (co-produced) Bling Lagosians (directed), and lately Collision Course (directed/co-Produced), which have connected strongly with new-age theatre and film patrons, Bolanle has proceeded to adopt an approach that opens up the heart of the play to new audiences. Thus even while dipping or digging deeply into the dense textual rhetoric of the play, the director lays emphatic, lavish attention on/to spectacles through dances, music, costumes and theatre architectonics — all virtues that have been observed to signpost the unique, game-changing signatures in her artistic works.

Remarkably, she achieves the dramatic objectives of the play and the authorial intention of the dramatist. Impressively too, she celebrates the essence of Yoruba culture, making it perhaps more luring and accessible to a younger generation of the ethnic stock, who have been feared to be largely bored with, estranged from, or disinterested in the culture. This is indeed a missionary or evangelistic sort of intervention; quite beneficial to the entire theatre producing and consuming family, albeit a tribute to her heritage. Recall that her gingerly step into the realm of musical theatre in recent epoch, not only helped to revive the tradition set by the progenitors of the genre — Hubert Ogunde, Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo etc, but also helped to bring to the turf many new directors and producers; or even rekindle the interest of many academy-trained theatre artistes whose career had either been seemingly stuck; or, slumbering.

Though at the outset of the production, Bolanle had said on a television interview that she doubted how the public, the theatre critics especially, would receive her interpretation, she was confident she had put in all her mental and creative resources into the production, even though she was radical in her directorial approach.

The dramatist, an avid director himself, who many admits or have reported, is not an easy artist to please, especially when his piece of work is being handled by other directors, gave the production a thumb-up after the May outing.

He wrote in commendation: “Superlative: Seven Gbosas.”

Soyinka’s former student, close aide, editor of the authoritative volume, ‘Drama & Theatre in Nigeria,’ Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, wrote: “Lights, sounds, effects, music, everything was just phenomenal the came alive.”

Ace filmmaker and storyteller, Femi Odugbemi, endorses the show thus: “The most riveting, colourful, multidimensional and experiential interpretation of Death of the King’s Horseman I have seen.”

The producers of the play themselves, BAP Productions, promo it as follows: “You probably have seen ‘Death and the King’s Horseman, you probably have heard of Death and the King’s Horseman, but you haven’t seen BAP’s direction of Death and the King’s Horseman.”

On her Instagram page, Bolanle wrote of her experience:

“When Prof Wole Soyinka asked me to direct DKHM, I must confess I was flattered but anxious at the same time. First is that when I read DKHM in 1986 for my A levels at International School Ibadan, I didn’t really understand a lot of it. Years later, having watched it several times, I still didn’t understand a lot of what was being said so I was naturally anxious.

“Second is that I like my contemporary plays like Saro, Wakaa etc so I didn’t want this to be my waterloo. The story is deep, now I understand why Prof Soyinka got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laced with riddles, proverbs, culture, history, tradition and talks about leadership and culture clash. So, I also went deep. I became Elesin Oba!

“I had to get into Elesin’s head. I wondered how I would feel knowing that I had to commit suicide to follow my King to another world. So someone must have to mess with my mind to believe this. Some level of spiritual brainwashing and belief had to take place. I then concocted my own spiritual walk. What kind of fortification would they have offered him to give him that emotional and mental stability.

“Basically, I just started creating sounds in my head, aided by my able sound engineer Daniel Olaoluwa. This was the scene that nailed it for me and Ola Rotimi’s performance and Lanre Adediwura’s chants nailed the scene and the other actors were simply incredible too! The rest is history! They say its the best they have seen. I am genuinely humbled.”

'I had to get into Elesin’s head, went deep' to direct 'Death and the King’s Horseman' - Austen-Peters 4


‘I learnt value of diligence, hardwork, honesty from my father’

Bolanle and her Dad, the illustrious lawyer and Statesman, Chef Afe Babalola

The successful lawyer turned creative producer tends to be seen as operating outside her father’s shadow, is the daughter of legal luminary, Dr. Afe Babalola (SAN).

“My father has been a very important part of my life. He taught us to be diligent. He taught us when we were very young that ‘your two best friends are your hands’ and not necessarily the wealth he has acquired. I have always operated like my father is not wealthy so that I can acquire my own wealth and I have also taught my children the same thing.

“The value of hardwork, diligence, honesty has been something he imbibed in us,” she said.


About Austen-Peters

HOLDER of a Master’s degree in International Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Law degree from the University of Lagos, Bolanle worked as a Lawyer with the United Nations before returning home to start the Terra Kulture in 2003; a centre described as a one-of a-type one-stop place for all creative production and expressionin Lagos.

She has featured three consecutive times in Forbes Afrique as one of the most influential women in Africa. Also described by CNN as the “woman pioneering theatre in Nigeria,” she has received wide global media attention and awards for her contribution to the arts.

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