Thursday, 20 December 2018

Theatre review: The Convert

When Kwame Kwei-Armah announced his first season at the Young Vic, his second main-house show definitely raised a few eyebrows: After all, The Convert only had its London premiere last year, in a warmly-reviewed (including by me) production at the Gate. Given how prominently the publicity mentions that writer Danai Gurira and star Letitia Wright both appeared in Black Panther, perhaps the reasoning was that the film's huge success would draw a much bigger crowd to a play that deserves to be seen. In this Victorian-era tragicomedy Wright plays Jekesai, a Shona girl in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) fleeing an arranged marriage her uncle (Jude Akuwudike) is trying to set up with a man who already has a number of wives. Her own culture allows this but the religion of the white British forbids bigamy, and her aunt Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) is housekeeper to a man who can help.

Chilford (Paapa Essiedu) was raised by Catholic priests from a young age, and is a devout Christian whose biggest regret is that the Church is not yet ready to consider letting a black African join the priesthood (at least, that's what they've told him.)


Instead he throws himself into lay preaching and converting the locals, and while Jekesai (whom he renames Ester) initially only joins the church to escape her uncle, she quickly becomes a zealous believer. The Convert's characters are all trying to find a place where they can comfortably fit in between the traditions and beliefs of their elders and those of the white men who have all the power, and while Ola Ince's production does bring out the comedy in Gurira's play, particularly in the first two acts, Essiedu plays Chilford less as a deluded comic figure, more of a gently tragic one who's allowed himself to believe not only in the religion itself, but also that those who taught it to him will follow its teachings when it comes to dealing with people who look like him.


Elsewhere Chilford's friend Chancellor (Ivanno Jeremiah) has embraced the religion in the sense that he's embraced the opportunity to sin, while Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo gets the scene-stealing role as his fiancée Prudence, on the surface the most pretentiously Westernised character but in reality perhaps the most canny, knowing how much to play the game while still secretly holding onto her roots. On the flipside we have Jekesai's cousin Tamba (Rudolphe Mdlongwa,) whose sympathies lie with the rebels murdering whites and local "traitors," and who may or may not be one of them himself.


Naomi Dawson's in-the-round set is surrounded by a transparent gauze box which rises for most of the play but returns for particularly claustrophobic scenes; it adds an element of distance in what isn't necessarily the most intimate production but is certainly powerfully acted and keeps you gripped to its plot twists, the three hours going by quickly. For me personally it's still a bit soon to revive it as I remembered a lot of the story as it unfolded, but on the other hand it's interesting to see how modern plays as much as classics can work with very different approaches. And if this is the time when its high profile means a lot of people will catch a beautifully intricate and well-written play, then this is the right time to bring it back.

The Convert by Danai Gurira is booking until the 26th of January at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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