tue 25/06/2024

A Season in the Congo, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

A Season in the Congo, Young Vic

A Season in the Congo, Young Vic

Chiwetel Ejiofor triumphs as Patrice Lumumba in Joe Wright's evening of total theatre

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba, charisma incarnateJohan Persson

No theatre in London, surely, has offered us more miracles of transformed space than the Young Vic. Small it may be, but its productions often feel big in every way, and none more so than Joe Wright’s total-theatre take on Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo.

Enter the auditorium and designer Lizzie Clachan immediately places you – in all but the humidity, which doesn’t seep through from outside – on a street or square in Kinshasa, quickly taking you back to its former status as colonial Léopoldville in 1955 where Patrice Lumumba is selling beer. None of this would work, though, if it weren’t for what must be, even by his own extraordinary standards, a benchmark performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

You can’t take your eyes off this theatrical reincarnation of Lumumba, the idealist who would have Congo unconditionally free, from the minute the modest, humorous, bespectacled figure whose banked fires are soon to explode makes his way on stage. I simply can’t tell you whether the text he’s given by Césaire, the Martinican poet, playwright and activist whose play first appeared in 1966 only five years after Lumumba’s murder, is good or not. In Ejiofor’s delivery, every line is meant and felt, as it must be if we’re to believe the unshakeable integrity of a good man whose tragic flaw is his urge to “hate ‘slowly’ “, as he puts it.

A Season in the Congo production image by Johan PerssonOf course the great speech in front of King Baudouin of Belgium is authentic, a tour de force as Ejiofor’s prime minister slides down a pole from the balcony he’s sharing with Baudouin and cautious President Kasavabu - Joseph Mydell, perfectly expressing an inscrutable seeming passivity – and fires up the people. The balancing moment in the second half, the words Césaire gives Lumumba about colonialised and free Africa to throw in the teeth of betrayer Joseph Mobutu, is more quietly moving, as is so much about ideals betrayed in the quiet moments of Lumumba’s decline.

Wright’s answer to Césaire’s under-nuanced take on six fateful years of Congolese history - this is the play's first UK production, in a translation by Ralph Manheim - is to turn the history lesson into a quick-change pageant that’s eventually stripped away to a heart of darkness. In this he’s dazzlingly supported by the choreography of co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the puppets of Sarah Wright. Scenes of conflict are played out to original dance movements – stunningly executed by the tight ensemble, though not all their words are clear – while the colonialist manipulators, speaking in doggerel verse, are giant heads bobbing on one of the balconies (pictured above). I’ve never come across battle scenes both playful and hard-hitting like this, with a miniature aeroplane, processions of dispossessed model figures and Lilliputian parachutes falling on the audience. So much for the giant helicopter in Miss Saigon.

Production image from A Season in the Congo by Johan PerssonIt was Césaire’s prerogative to parody UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld – Kurt Egyiawan in a purposefully bad blonde wig, while others in the all-black cast sport white false noses to denote cartoonish oppressors – though he has his moments of dignity. Satire goes home with most of the colonialists when Congolese greed for money and power devours its own. There’s another voice of conscience, Kabongo Tshisensa (pictured above centre with Ejiofor) as the eloquent Greek chorus who also plays the poetic likembe or thumb piano, and more musical gentleness from tenorish singer and guitarist Kaspy N’Dia. Neither, Wright tells us, is going to survive Mobutu’s brutal dictatorship, a 32-year reign of terror the extent of which Césaire could not have foreseen in 1966.

Yet read N’Dia’s touching biography in the programme about his voluntary work with street children in Kinshasa and you realize there’s still individual good going on in a beleaguered country. This production is testament to its vitality but – much more important, and on a level Rufus Norris's flawed but energetic Feast in the same venue could only dream of – it’s everything theatre ought to be. As for Ejiofor, whether he gets an Oscar for his performance in Twelve Years a Slave remains to be seen, but I’ll eat my hat if he doesn’t get every theatre award going for this.

In Ejiofor’s delivery, every line is meant and felt, as it must be if we’re to believe the unshakeable integrity of a good man


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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