Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Theatre review: The Convert

A couple of past successes will be coming back for Christopher Haydon's final season of programming at the Gate, and after the success of Eclipsed* he brings back writer Danai Gurira for an unusually long and epic play by the venue's usual standards: The Convert is set in late Victorian Rhodesia, where both Catholic and Protestant churches have made slight inroads in converting the locals. Taken from his family as a child, Chilford (Stefan Adegbola) is a devout Catholic, helping the local priest and frustrated by the fact that an old rival has been accepted to the priesthood, as he himself had hoped to be the first black African priest. He's never managed to get anyone quite as enthusiastic about the white men's religion as he is - his housekeeper Mai Tamba (Clare Perkins) goes through the motions but also performs good luck magic when he's not looking. But her niece Jekesai (Mimi Ndiweni) is a different story.

Jekesai is fleeing an arranged marriage to an old man with numerous other wives and, in what was evidently a common recruitment technique, the Church's banning of bigamy made it a safe haven for women trying to avoid it.

Renamed Ester, she not only converts but becomes Chilford's star pupil and a devout believer. But this is a dangerous position to be in as Chilford's friend Chancellor (Richard Pepple) brings news of a growing rebellion against the whites - with black "traitors" like them a particular target, and with Ester's cousin Tamba (Michael Ajao) among the local rebels.

Rosie Elnile's set is a thrust in which Chilford's concrete-floored house, with its rugs, writing desk and chaise longue, juts out of a huge pile of mud, a fitting metaphor for the man who lives there: Adegbola successfully makes him a tragicomic figure, so determined to be whiter than the whites that he speaks an affected English full of malapropisms, but blind to the fact that the peace and love he's been taught come with some unspoken caveats that don't always include him. In the title role Ndiweni is impressive at conveying both Ester's intense faith and the way it's tested. But the standout performance is Joan Iyiola as Prudence, Chancellor's fiancée and the person who most seems to have embraced the whites' ways while still maintaining a secret bond with her African roots - but again, this is a comfortable compromise that she'll find challenged by both sides.

Between the length, the small cast and the single location, The Convert could easily have dragged but it's a credit to both Gurira's writing and Haydon's production that - even with the first act coming in at an hour and 40 minutes - it feels pretty fast-paced and the time goes by quickly, even when it deals with difficult subjects. Add to that an aspect of historical imperialism that's not often looked at, and you've got a show well worth catching.

The Convert by Danai Gurira is booking until the 11th of February at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Iona Firouzabadi.


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