Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Theatre review: A Season in the Congo

The film director and Keira Knightley-enabler Joe Wright only made his theatrical debut a few months ago, but he's already looking very assured in his follow-up, A Season in the Congo. Aimé Césaire's play was written in 1966, only a few years after the events it describes, as it follows the story of Congolese independence through the eyes of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. A former beer salesman who'd sneak rhetoric against the Belgian colonists into his sales pitch, a few years later he would win the country's first democratic election. But his idealism overlooks both the Belgians' sneaky plan to hold onto financial interests in their former colony, and the tribal enmities it will exploit to do so. Within a few months he has catastrophically lost control, and inadvertently paved the way for a far from democratic Congo.

Having long been disappointed not to get tickets to his Othello at the Donmar I was excited to finally see Chiwetel Ejiofor on stage after a long absence. As Lumumba he is a powerfully flawed central figure, whose determination to provide an example for the whole of Africa may be his tragic flaw - keen to unite a continent he can't see how far he still is from uniting his own nation, and the impassioned speeches that helped bring about independence no longer serve him as well when he has to deal with a world of international diplomacy.

Lumuba's is inevitably an often dark story steeped in bloodshed but Wright's production avoids becoming an uncomfortable history lesson through its endless supply of energy, music (from Kabongo Tshisensa, Kaspy N’Dia, Rodaidh McDonald and Richard Russell) and theatrical invention (the paratroopers are a rather memorable moment.) Skeletal puppets represent the interfering USA and USSR, more Spitting Image-style puppets the interests of the bankers. Their design is extended to the instances when black actors take on white characters, by simply sticking on a white nose: Grotesque ones for the Belgian colonists, something a bit more subtle for the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (Kurt Egyiawan,) another flawed character with an inadvertently detrimental effect on the nation - despite his protestations of neutrality his lack of action plays right into the hands of Lumumba's opposition.

The cast of 15 actors and dancers play multiple roles and effectively create the impression of an even bigger cast of crowds, armies and celebrations in a country in the middle of constant upheavals and reversals of fortune. The crucial figures surrounding Ejiofor are Joseph Mydell as President Kasavubu, the calming presence next to Lumumba's fire, but whose frustration at the Prime Minister's inability to play the diplomatic game eventually sees him turn on him; and Daniel Kaluuya impressive in the subtlety with which he takes his likeable persona as Joseph Mobutu, the chief of staff Lumumba makes colonel to appease the army, to a much more menacing place as the colonel heads a military coup that would eventually see him installed as one of Africa's most notorious and bloody dictators.

The play itself feels as if it may be a bit overly simplistic - written only five years after Lumumba's death I can see how Césaire might have been tempted to treat him purely as a martyr - ironically given he also exposes how the politician's enemies appropriated this same martyr image for their own ends. But it's hard to totally buy into the idea that Lumumba never once foresaw the violent consequences of his actions and was blinded by idealism every time. Still, this production is lively and totally engrossing, and makes it surprising to find that the play hasn't been performed in English before. (The text is credited as being "from" a translation by Ralph Manheim which suggests to me that Wright and dramaturg Ruth Little may have taken some liberties in creating quite as vibrantly theatrical an event as they have.) Lizzie Clachan has created an epic set to take in the contradictions and expanses of the story, and if Wright's blocking sometimes shows his inexperience by focusing too much on the pit dead centre, he certainly shows a natural flair for bringing something very specifically theatrical to life.

A Season in the Congo by by Aimé Césaire from a translation by Ralph Manheim is booking until the 24th of August at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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