Elesin Oba and Iyaloja publicity poster
Elesin Oba and Iyaloja publicity poster

Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman gallops into pedestrianism – Michael Kolawole

Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, an adaptation of Soyinka’s play The King’s Horseman, credited to the late director Biyi Bandele, is a slap-happy stab at the original material. Bandele’s loyalty to the original material skews the distinct disposition of his cinematic set-up.

This film is based on real events that took place in Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city in Nigeria, in 1946. That year, the lives of Elesin (Olori Elesin), his son, and the Colonial District Officer intertwined with  disastrous results set out in the film. 

The film opens with texts telecast on the screen telling us that the king has passed and, as tradition demands, Elesin Oba (the king’s horseman) must sacrifice himself to serve his deceased king in the afterlife. On the night of the king’s burial, Elesin must commit ritual suicide. Through Elesin’s ritual suicide, the king would gain free passage into the land of the gods and save the community from disaster. 

In the subsequent scenes, we see Elesin Oba (played by Odunlade Adekola) rollicking among his harem of women—eating and drinking, as they caress his body. Later Elesin enters along a passage before the market, followed by his drummers and praise singer Olohun Iyo (played by singer Olawale ‘Brymo’ Ashimi).

A scene from Elesin Oba
A scene from Elesin Oba

Elesin, a man of tremendous exuberance, speaks, dances, and sings with an infectious enjoyment of life that accompanies all his actions. But as a playboy and hedonist, he is not fully invested in his duty. Preoccupied with taking pleasure on his last night on earth, he decides to marry a new bride and leave a child behind to bear his name and legacy. 

After he has copulated with his new bride, Elesin dances in a solemn, regal gesture for the procession of his ritual suicide. His voice becomes drowsy as his movement morphs into a trance dance and he struggles to “die the death of death…the unknowable death of death”.

But the ritual suicide procession is interrupted by District Officer Simon Pilkings (played by Mark Elderkin). He arrests Elesin to hinder the ritual suicide. 

“Sometimes you have to lie,” says the late American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. “One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”

Adapting a novel or a stage play into a screenplay is no cinch. To extract the textual significance of a book, it is expedient for a writer to focus on the threatening scenarios and ticking clocks to craft an awesome screenplay. The writer needs to exercise creative freedom to present a vivid representation of the source material. If it isn’t good on the page, there is no way it’d appear plausible on the screen. 

Elesin Oba doesn’t only fall short in writing, it flops in directing, and acting. For the most part, its strict loyalty to its stage origin makes it a slipshod screen attempt just like Half of A Yellow Sun, the director’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel.

Though the recently deceased Biyi Bandele was an award-winning novelist and playwright, after failing at representing two books in cinematic forms, it’s obvious that the transformation of books into films is not his forte. It’s understood that Soyinka prefers the representation of his play to stay true to the original material. But cinema is not a stage where the actors indulge in histrionics and ramble on and on. It’s important for some scenes to be removed, while others need to be rewritten for a credible screen manifestation.

The characters in Elesin Oba are so thinly developed that it’s hard to connect with them. Odunlade Adekola’s Elesin is pedestrian, compared to his admirable role in King of Thieves, where he plays Adegbite, the troubled community monarch. His performance here is slightly akin to his comic performances in Samu Alajo, his YouTube comedy series that parodies everyday life happenings. The only difference is that Samu Alajo is a low-budget, mundane situation comedy while Elesin Oba is a big-budget, high-blown tragedy. 

Shaffi Bello’s role as Iyaloja is a textbook performance—electrifying, comedic, and terrifying—that easily transcends the mixed-bag poetic and pantomime rendition of the other characters.

Elesin Oba and Iyaloja publicity poster
Elesin Oba and Iyaloja – publicity poster

It’s impressive how she shoulders the film by gracefully driving the plot with a pristine interpretation of her role. Her elegant delivery of dialogue with panache is outstanding and classy. Unlike his performance in Udoka Onyeka’s short film Price of Admission, where he plays the role of a seamster and up-and-coming musician, here singer Brymo falters as Olohun Iyo, Elesin’s praise singer. The huskiness of his voice, his passionless and monotone delivery as well as exaggerated gesticulation taint his performance.

Elegantly dressed in a sober western suit, actor Deyemi Okanlawon is uninspiring as Olunde, Eleshin’s son. He shines briefly at the ball, where he engages Jane Pilkings (Jenny Stead) in a protracted argument about cultural sentiments, humanity, and death. But Deyemi and Jenny are not well-invested in their roles. Despite their long-winded, roundabout conversation, the scene is everything but memorable.

Like the original play, the film is filled with flowery speeches and arguments. The poetic, cryptic, and periphrastic dialogues could have been paraphrased or rewritten for clarity and a finer cinematic rendition.

There are assertions that one must understand and have a thorough knowledge of Soyinka’s Fourth Stage theorem, or have a knowledge of literary criticism to enjoy the film. That’s not true.

The breaking of the 4th wall in a stage or film is intended to reveal character interiority, convey crucial knowledge of a play or film and evoke profound feelings within the audience. It is also meant to connect the protagonist’s mind with the audience and heighten the tension in the play or film. Sadly, in Elesin Oba, there are no crucial scenes that pique the audience’s curiosity and neither is the protagonist well-developed to create a connection with the audience. 

It’s disheartening that the crucial scenes in the film are not well-depicted. The King’s death is the inciting incident that changes the course of Elesin’s life. Yes, it’s not written in the original play but it would have been cinematically arresting if Bandele had established a scene to show the demise of the King before plunging into Elesin’s story. With that, the audience would be cued to the film’s backstory before investing in the ritual suicide procession of Elesin and the calamity that ensues.

Also poorly implemented are the scenes of Olunde and Elesin’s death. Agreed, Olunde’s death, which occurred behind the scene, is created to heighten the tension and speed up the ticking clock, but his death would have been effective if we are shown how he killed himself. Elesin’s death, which serves as the denouement of the film, is so bad it’s good.

In the original play, Elesin strangles himself with the handcuff.  In the film, he climbs on a chair, and the camera pans down as he strangles himself. Due to the constraints of stage production, it’d be understood if a director doesn’t properly interpret the action. But in film, there are many artistic options that could have been explored.

I understand that Bandele navigates the interiority and violence of the characters with the idea that every aspect of violence doesn’t need to be shown. Yes, we don’t need to see Olunde commit suicide, but seeing his body dangling on a tree or blood splatter on his body would evoke and heighten the air of tragedy.

Violence is an inherent part of tragedy but it needs to be stylistically and artfully executed to strike a chord. The lack of proper visual representations of these vital incidents drain dramatic potential: they don’t arouse the feeling of tragedy the film intends to arouse.

Elesin Oba combines the elements of a lavish, big-budget Nollywood production and a satire on traditional practices.

As a historical piece, the movie is beautiful. The costumes are magnificent, the sets are awesome. And if there is one thing that portrays the threnodic essence of the film, it’s the music that serves as a vehicle that drives the plot from its jubilant, carnivalesque opening to its tragic, funereal ending.

Far be it for me to deride the director of this film for his mis-steps. But, as Olohun Iyo says in the original play, “a man is either born to his art or he isn’t.”


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