Biyi Bandele wrote Two Horsemen when he was nineteen.
When I interviewed Bandele in relation to the upcoming Jermyn Street Theatre production of his play, he reflected that when he wrote Two Horsemen he “was a kid” who was “sharing a room at uni with like five other kids… when I would read what I’d written so far, they’d laugh and say ‘you’re crazy‘.” While Bandele’s story suggests the informal and casual atmosphere in which Two Horsemen was birthed, the Jermyn Street Theatre production, directed by Ebenezer Bamgboye, aptly does justice to the confidence and originality of Bandele’s voice – even at the beginning of his writing career.
As Bandele reflected in the interview, Two Horsemen doesn’t really have a plot. While the original production of Two Horsemen, staged at the Gate Theatre in 1994 and directed by Roxana Silbert, was set in a run-down shack, Bamgboye made the decision to set his production in a flat. The setting is indicated in the set, designed by Louie Whitemore, with the presence of a double bed, small table with two chairs, stove, clothing line and a shopping trolley brimming with items. The bright colours of the bed clothes and clothes on the clothing line effectively juxtapose the dystopian and apocalyptic atmosphere of the play. The choice to include a number of looped sequences in which Lagbaja, played by Daon Broni, and Banza, played by Michael Fatogun, repeatedly interacted with the set – putting out plates on the table, lighting the stove, putting away the plates, turning off the stove – also effectively conveyed the sense of time passing, but also being stuck in endless, repeated loops that the characters cannot escape.
As a team, Bamgboye, Broni, and Fatogun, excellently worked together to convey the tonal shifts of Bandele’s play and to balance the sense of impending doom with charismatic comedy. With theatres being closed for the best part of the year, Bamgboye’s direction was particularly effective in reminding audiences of the unique nature of the theatrical experience; the unique nature of being stuck in a small, dark room for 70 minutes with actors who aren’t staring out from a television screen but can look you directly in the eyes.
A particularly effective segment, for example, was in the centre of the play when Fatogun directly addressed two audience members, uncomfortably accusing one woman of sexually licentious behaviour, and an older gentleman of having inappropriate erections. While I was, admittedly, glad that I was not the audience member being directly addressed, Fatogun’s performance effectively created an intense atmosphere within the theatre – an atmosphere that could only be created in the theatre.
From the outset and throughout the performance, the connection between Broni and Fatogun was electric: the ease and speed at which they jumped on each other’s cues effectively conveyed the energy of Bandele’s words, forcing the audience to sit on the edge of their seat and listen intently, and effectively landed in Bandele’s sharp punchlines.
Lighting, designed by Johanna Town, and sound, designed by Max Pappenheim, also deserve applause as they were invaluable in creating an atmosphere of foreboding that often effectively juxtaposed the light-hearted verve of the actors. I particularly enjoyed, for example, the choice to mark all the lines that suggested things weren’t quite as normal as they might seem – such as Broni’s line that “2+2=5” or Fatogun’s line that he “was here a thousand years ago, this very minute a thousand years ago” – with a change from the warm flat light to cold white light.
Altogether, the Jermyn Street Theatre production of Two Horsemen is a fantastic reminder of the uniqueness of the theatrical experience. Bamgboye, Broni and Fatogun virtuousically bring Bandele’s absurd dystopian play to life, constantly keeping the audience on the edge of the seat as the narrative twists and turns and arrives at unexpected punchlines.
While the play is already thought-provoking in its exploration of social inequality, mortality, and religion, this Jermyn Street Theatre production elevated Bandele’s words with sound and lighting design that effectively marked the complex tonal shifts and performances that brought Lagbaja and Banza to life as incredibly charismatic young men – performances which had me gripped for the entire duration of this taut 70 minute play.
Two Horsemen ran at the Jermyn Street Theatre from 17th May – 5th June 2021 find out more here.