By Toyin Akinosho
The filmmaker Biyi Bandele took the decision to adapt Wole Soyinka’s play: Death and The King’s Horseman into a largely Yoruba speaking movie, titled Elesin.
“It was my decision”, he said in a telephone conversation on Friday August 5, 2022. “There was a bit of resistance initially, but Netflix was comfortable with it”.
Death is written in highly sophisticated English language, even though it’s a work of Yoruba cultural rejuvenation. There’s a Yoruba translation of Death by Akinwunmi Ishola, but Bandele’s Elesin is not that translation.
Bandele said he wanted to do a naturalistic film. Originally a playwright, he had become a critically acclaimed novelist, screen play writer and film director in the 33 years since his play Rain, won an International Student Playscript competition in 1989. He wrote the screenplay and directed Elesin for the coproducers EbonyLife Films and Netflix. “Everyone who is Yoruba in the story speaks in Yoruba. And the British characters all speak in English”, he told me. “It’s a Yoruba story you know, even though it’s written in English. I wanted the story to be natural”.
He considered Death as one of the most phenomenal plays written by an African. “My idea of the film’s success is that those who see it are compelled to go and see the play”, he said. “But this is not the play. This is a film”.
Published in 1975, Death fictionalizes true events in the Oyo Kingdom in the twilight period of the colonial era in Nigeria. The central character is Elesin, the King’s Horseman of the title. The death of the king must be followed by the ritual suicide of the king’s horseman as well as the king’s dog and horse, according to tradition, because the horseman’s spirit is essential to helping the King’s spirit ascend to the afterlife. Otherwise, the king’s spirit would wander the earth and bring harm to his people. The ritual is in progress when Simon Pilkings, the British District Colonial Officer intervenes, declaring the age-old process as illegal.
The community interpretes the breaking of the ritual as a shattering disruption of the cosmic order of the universe, leading to the seeding of doubt in the well-being and future of the collectivity. The community blames Elesin as much as Pilkings, accusing him of being too attached to the earth to fulfil his spiritual obligations. Events lead to tragedy when Elesin’s son, Olunde, who has returned to Nigeria from studying medicine in Europe, takes on the responsibility of his father and commits ritual suicide in his place so as to restore the honour of his family and the order of the universe.
I was eminently surprised by how readily Biyi Bandele was willing to speak, that Friday evening. I had chased him for a lengthy sit-down video interview since he came into Nigeria- around the time that COVID-19 was kicking off in early 2020 -and decided to stay on for a while longer than he usually did whenever he came home from London. He had parried my request with a joke that some people had warned him I was something of a scathing observer of the Lagos culture scene.
In the middle of working on the Elesin script, and doing the film’s pre-production, he had co-directed (another EbonyLife/Netflix collaboration) the series Blood Sisters. With Elesin over, I guess he must have felt a little more at ease, such that on that Friday, he gave a date: “Let us do the interview mid-August (2022)”, by which time he hoped to have completed a certain crucial milestone in the publishing of his novel: Yoruba Boy Running, a fictionalized account of the life of Bishop Samuel Ajayi-Crowther.
Bandele asked me over the telephone if I had seen the Elesin trailer. Then he informed me: “Olunde spoke in English when he conversed with the wife of the District Commissioner, but he insulted his father in Yoruba”.
I asked him if he didn’t think he was taking a large risk. He said it was, indeed, on the contrary. “I wanted the film to be widely accessible”.
MY DECISION TO CALL HIM THAT EVENING was spurred by a question from Akin Adesokan, professor of comparative literature at Indiana University Bloomington, United States, who had, in July 2020, written an incisive essay on EbonyLife/Netflix’s proposition to adapt Death.
Adesokan had called attention to the fact that Elesin was the second Yoruba movie on Netflix’s platform. The digital streaming service had, in May 2022, added Ayinla, a film based on the life of the legendary Apala musician, to its streaming list. Directed by Tunde Kelani and produced by Jadesola Osiberu, Ayinla premiered on June 13, 2021 in Lagos and arrived the cinemas on June 18, 2021 in 35 locations on the opening weekend. “By week 14, the indigenous title was shown in only one location, and at this time it had accumulated a sum of ₦91.30Million, finishing as the top 15 on the overall 2021 box office chart”, according to shockng.com, which covers the Business of Film/TV. Kelani, a veteran film auteur, has cast himself in the mold of a Yoruba renaissance motivator. Since he started his film production company Mainframe, in 1991, with the production of Ti Oluwa Ni Ile, he has had some English language works, (Thunderbolt, Dazzling Mirage, etc), but had concentrated on the Yoruba movie.
“Let’s be clear here”, Bandele insisted, “I wasn’t trying to be a Yoruba nationalist by making Elesin in the way I made it. I just wanted it to flow”.
I looked forward to the interview with the author of Burma Boy and the director of Half of a Yellow Sun, who was looking forward to directing a stage play in London in early 2023. Indeed, he had assured me we would meet on Sunday August 7, 2022, at the Book Party annually hosted by CORA/NLNG Ltd for the longlisted authors competing for the Nigeria Prize for Literature. Of that promise, Jahman Anikulapo, chief organizer of the event, wrote in a Whatsapp chat: “While I was expecting him at the Book Party, he had left 😟🙃😒”
Elesin will not be streamed on Netflix until after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. The film stars Odunlade Adekola, Shaffy Bello, Brymo, Deyemi Okanlawon, Omowunmi Dada, Jide Kosoko, Kevin Ushi, Jenny Stead, Mark Elderkin, Langley Kirkwood, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva.
Like a lot of Nigerians of his generation, Bandele, 54, had seen a number of productions of Death and naturally had his own favourite role plays. In that phone conversation, two days before his death, he remembered Peter Badejo’s performance of Elesin in London and spoke warmly of Phyllida Lloyd’s 1990 Royal Exchange Theatre production -which was the British premiere of the play-in Manchester.
I have personally seen over 12 productions of Death in the last 30 years. The first that comes to mind is Jide Ogungbade’s direction of the play in the course of the 60th birthday festival for Wole Soyinka at the National Theatre, Lagos in 1994, with Toyin Oshinaike playing Elesin. The many versions of Death I have watched over time have come to define, for me, how I see the next one.
The last production of the play I saw was Bolanle Austin Peters’ production and direction at the TerraKulture in December 2021. It was a feisty, sprawling multimedia show, which stretched the details and the poignancy of the ritual suicide more than I’d seen in any other production and played up the playfulness and banter of the market women, not just with the Elesin, as stipulated in the text, but with themselves. The characters also freely moved from Yoruba to English, especially in the market square. But I couldn’t escape noticing that the lead actors Mawuyo Ogun (Iyaloja) and Olarotimi Fakunle (Elesin), struggled with delivery when it came to some of the lengthy, delicate English lines in the play. These actors are some of the noteworthy performers in Lagos, but they appeared to trash about with some lines, especially with the diction, than I’d seen actors do in less elegant productions. These scenes came vividly to mind when I heard Bandele argue that he simply wanted the film to flow by allowing the Yorubas to speak in their mother tongue.