Before writing and directing the star-studded screenplay Half of a Yellow Sun, at the very beginning of his writing career, Biyi Bandele wrote Two Horsemen.
The play originally staged at the Gate Theatre in 1994, follows Banza and Langbaja as they trade stories about life, sex, and God in a run-down shack. Over the course of the play, the two men slither away from reality, swapping identities and repeating passages of dialogue until you have no idea who they are, what the truth is, and whether they are alive or dead.
This May, Two Horsemen returns to Jermyn Street Theatre in a production directed by Ebenezer Bamgboye and starring Daon Broni (Women Beware Women, The Globe) and Michael Fatogun (Foxes, Theatre 503). We caught up with Biyi and Ebenezer to find out more…
Please introduce yourself …
Biyi: My name is Biyi Bandele. I have lived in London for thirty years, so London is home. I write plays, novels, screenplays and I direct films.
Ebenezer: Hello, I’m Ebenezer Bamgboye. I am British-born, I am of Nigerian blood and I am a director.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
Ebenezer: Novel (adj).
In your own words, could you each summarise what Two Horsemen is about and what this play means to you?
Biyi: Two Horsemen doesn’t really have a plot. It was the first play I wrote (I was 19). I think I was just in love with words and creating dialogue for actors. I wrote it in the first term of my first year when studying drama at the University of Ife in Nigeria. I wrote it really just out of excitement; out of just falling in love with this new medium. I then entered the play into the International Student Play Script competition, and forgot about it until in my second year, a student told me they’d heard my name on the BBC World Service, and shortly after that I got the formal letter informing me that I’d won the competition – the last time anyone outside the UK or the US had won was in 1957 and it was Wole Soyinka. So, I got invited to London for a rehearsed reading and was only intending to stay for 3 months, but ended up finding publishers interested in my first novel and found a job as an arts editor on an African newspaper in Kilburn and London became home.
Ebenezer: Two Horsemen is a taut, funny, and absurdist piece about two men in an enclosed space that are plagued with a radically shifting understanding of what has already happened, what is real, and what is true; a psychological state that intensifies over the course of the piece. Similar to the work of Beckett and Ionesco, I see the piece as a metaphor (and crucially not an analogy) for the way it can feel to exist as a human in the world; grasping for meaning and understanding of one’s self and one’s environment but failing miserably to attain it. It feels absolutely like the piece was written with the chaos and suffering of Nigerian society in mind but to me, its relevance extends far beyond that. In the west we live in a society that has abandoned its metaphysical ‘shackles’ but has consequently lost anything resembling a foundation for many of the truths it holds dear, namely: that we exist for a purpose; there is meaning to our lives, there is such thing as an objective right and wrong, etc. To me, the play perfectly symbolises the absurdity of a modern western existence; being woefully distant from even a morsel of understanding regarding these big questions but pacifying oneself with pleasure to escape the existential dread.
Biyi, how far do you see your work to be influenced by playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco?
Biyi: I love Beckett’s work, but when I wrote Two Horsemen, I hadn’t yet directly read Beckett’s plays. However, a lot of the playwrights whose work I was reading were influenced by Beckett, so I had read him without knowing it. The difference between mine and Beckett’s work is that I don’t have a generally dystopian vision – I find that, no matter how bleak things are, there’s always some joy somewhere; some nirvana in the bleakest of situations. I’m not an existentialist in the way Beckett was – I don’t think you can be if you’ve ever lived in Lagos. It’s actually a luxury to be able to live life and just disdain it in that way. Lagos is a city designed for about 2 million people and there are now about 22 million people living here – with no social security system; no NHS. In Lagos, you have to be grateful for small mercies and be inventive all the time. There isn’t time to look at things and say “I’m just gonna be depressed!” – you could be depressed, but you’d still have to hustle. It’s brutal, but kind of liberating in its own way. It’s a very Nigerian thing in a way to just roll with the punches. I know that to be true because there have been times when I was in London with a roof over my head, I could pay my rent or mortgage, I was doing okay, but because it was winter and I couldn’t do things outside, everything would just get to me. It happens to everyone. In Lagos, if things get to you, you still have to go out and go hustle.
Biyi, I can’t help but notice that the title of Two Horsemen resembles the title of great Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman – is this just a coincidence?
Biyi: I actually only went to study drama at the University of Ife because I read that Wole Soyinka was a lecturer in the department of drama at the university, so I decided I wanted him to be my teacher. But when I got there, he’d left, so I just found myself studying drama, and I fell in love with it. Soyinka is an influence in that I grew up on his work and know his work very well. I consider Soyinka to be a genius – he’s a great playwright, an amazing poet, an incredibly gifted actor and he’s released a really great music album. My style is very, very me. I learned that you have to find your voice, and your voice is your voice – if you find it, you’re stuck with it. Soyinka’s more an influence in the sense that I don’t just write plays, but also write novels and direct films.
Biyi, you wrote Two Horsemen right at the beginning of your writing career, with the original production being staged at the Gate Theatre in 1994. How does it feel to return to this play twenty-seven years later?
Biyi: I’d written the play years before 1994 – by that time I’d already written another play and had a screenplay directed by Danny Boyle – and then we put this play on and it was received incredibly well. It kind of threw me, because virtually all the playwrights of my generation who later became grouped as the “In Your Face” playwrights – like Sarah Kane and Anthony Neilson – came to see the play, and I realised there were lots of elements of Two Horsemen that could be grouped with the “In Your Face” movement in the sense of being angry at the world. Their reaction made me realise that I had to decide what kind of art I wanted to put out into the world because I wasn’t angry in the way they were. One of the most important things to know as an artist, playwright, or writer is to know what your limitations are, because, in knowing your limitations, you discover your strengths. Because Two Horsemen was more successful than anything else I’d written up to that point, there was a temptation to go back and continue writing in the dystopian style, and I had to resist that temptation.
Biyi, as a director. How does it feel to hand over your play to be directed by someone else?
Biyi: I love going to the theatre and sitting down as a member of the audience. I find directing theatre incredibly stressful. I kind of trust that anyone who reads the play and who is a director and says they want to direct it will do whatever they want to do with it. With a screenplay, it’s very unlikely that I will accept another director – unless it’s Martin Scorsese or someone I’m completely in awe of. It’s very unlikely that I’d want to write a screenplay directed by someone else. With theatre, I love that someone else is directing my writing.
Ebenezer, in the past you’ve worked on plays like Nouveau Riche’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Was Too Heavy and Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith – in general, what attracts you to directing a play and why were you specifically interested in directing Two Horsemen?
Ebenezer: I’m attracted to texts that stimulate images, ideas, and a general experience in my head that excites me. The goal is always to create an experience that you would love if you were an audience member and every now again you come across a piece of writing that stimulates your brain to imagine such an experience. Likewise, I believe the job of drama is to interrogate all received wisdom, all the supposed ideological ‘certainties’. I’m attracted to texts that provided ample material for that to be done. Two Horsemen definitely did both these things for me. However, I was also attracted to it as I believe that Two Horsemen is a play that deserves to be better known than it is. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be seen as a classic of the absurdist canon, and perhaps (if we do a half-decent job of it!) it might help in a small way for it to get more of the recognition it deserves.
Ebenezer, are there any elements of Two Horsemen that you have directed in a distinctly different way from when the play was first staged in 1994?
Ebenezer: I would never say I come to a project with the intention of ‘trying to do it differently‘. Rather, I try to express the piece the way that I see it; I try to create the most dynamic and engaging live experience I can think of with the text in question and I imagine how I can take the ‘centre’ of the piece (as I interpret it) and find visual motifs and symbols to reiterate and complement it. In terms of my choices, I’m a big fan of prominent audio-visual worlds so this is something one can expect from my version. I have tasked my amazing design team with allowing the sound and light to be characters in the play, as opposed to icing on the cake. Also, in my research and wider reading into the theatre of the absurd in preparation for directing this play, I discovered that a trademark of many of the texts within this canon is exchanging plot for a situation that does not develop narratively but grows in intensity. This is definitely something I see in Two Horsemen and we have worked hard to try and create a crescendo of intensification over the course of the evening.
Ebenezer, it’s also been announced that later this month, you’re directing a production of Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame at the Almeida Theatre. How did you manage to juggle both directing jobs simultaneously and can you share anything about this production?
Ebenezer: Juggling is certainly the right word. Sometimes I feel like one has to sign a contract with oneself and just accept that the workload is going to be high for a little while and you might not get much downtime. This is something I’ve done gladly over the past few weeks given the memory is still very fresh from when I was twiddling my thumbs not doing much a mere few months ago. Furthermore, my personal belief is that one’s 20’s should be about graft; really putting the work in. So all in all, it has been a joyous period.
The God’s is a rousing, epic masterpiece. If Biyi is the Nigerian Beckett then Rotimi is our Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare he is able to balance the epic with the poetic with the visceral with the intimate. Likewise, there is an extraordinary inner pulse to that play that I aim to channel and complement (with a yet to be revealed live element) hopefully to create a truly thrilling evening. I count myself as very fortunate to be able to work on these two amazing texts.
Meanwhile, Biyi, you’re currently working on a film adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman – can you tell us anything more?
Biyi: I’m currently in Lagos working on the film – this is the first time I’ve been in Lagos for over a month in thirty-two years! The films being produced by Netflix and Ebony Life Films. We start shooting in September.
What excites you both most about welcoming audiences to experience this new production of Two Horsemen?
Biyi: I’m excited, but I’m also kind of nervous. That play was written by this kid that I kind of know, but I don’t know him that well. It’s a very different world right now. There is no parallel in recent history for what the entire human race has just gone through, and Two Horsemen is set shortly after a global catastrophe, so very appropriate for these times.
Ebenezer: I’m excited to show audiences something that is different to what they may have typically seen, yet (hopefully) very enjoyable. Sometimes absurdist theatre can be-though brilliant-alienating and inaccessible. Biyi is great, however, at balancing embodying all of the idiosyncrasies of this genre with a sense of fun and enjoyableness. In an ideal world, people would leave the theatre having had a great evening but also with an expanded understanding of what drama can be.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection? – Biyi: A Shuttle in the Crypt by Wole Soyinka | Ebenezer: The Empty Space by Peter Brook
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Biyi: Anything by Fela Kuti. | Ebenezer: A song called Under Control by The Internet.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Biyi: Anything by Martin Scorsese or Danny Boyle. | Ebenezer: The Sopranos
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? Biyi: The first play I saw was a filmed UK production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, which I saw on TV. It made a big impression on me. I was pretty shocked at the fury – I could recognise some of it from my dad, who had been a soldier in the Second World War and suffered from PTSD. | Ebenezer: First-ever would have been school productions. First out of school would have been local amateur pantomimes. First professional would have probably been work at the Leeds Playhouse (formerly the West Yorkshire Playhouse) which is local to where I grew up (Barnsley). A particularly memorable show was Tis Pity She’s A Whore directed by Jonathan Munby. I remember being amazed at how contemporary and edgy it felt despite being 400-year-old text. I found it visceral, emotionally raw, and loved how multi-disciplinary it was. Probably the first time I remember desperately wanting to be on the other side of it all. (making as opposed to watching).
Two Horsemen plays at Jermyn Street Theatre from 17th May – 5th June. Book tickets and find out more here.