A Season in the Congo

Aimè Cesairé, from the translation by Ralph Manheim
Young Vic

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba Credit: Johan Persson
Puppets made by Lyndie Wright, Julia Jeulin and Rebekah Wild Credit: Johan Persson
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba with the full Company Credit: Johan Persson

Hot movie director Joe Wright, best known for his collaborations with Keira Knightley, most recently Anna Karenina, is showing bravery in his belated theatrical career.

Having directed light comedy Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar, he has now turned his hand to a bioplay about Patrice Lumumba, a revered left-wing political figure who died over 50 years ago, having brought independence to the Congo.

In a style that starts out somewhere between Oh What a Lovely War and The Ubu Plays, Wright, with the assistance of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, attempts to synthesise the spirit of Central Africa with a story that has echoes of Julius Caesar.

The location is beautifully realised by designer Lizzie Clachan who creates a mini village on stage filled with hidden corners that come into their own at various points in the 2¾ hours.

The sense of African otherness is cleverly consolidated by the presence as occasional narrator of a man who might be a wise witch doctor and speaks in a local language, translated by other characters.

Kabongo Tshisensa is a memorable presence and adds to the effect by playing the Likemba, a twanging instrument that few habitués of the Young Vic will ever have seen or heard.

This all works surprisingly well, as an ensemble sing and dance their way into the hearts of the audience before the house lights have even dimmed.

Even as some pretty serious revolutionary messages are going down from the Marxist father of his people, overcoming tribal divisions to bring about the departure of the Belgian oppressors, the comedy and visual fireworks continue, helpfully lightening the tone, especially with the use of some remarkable puppetry and modelling courtesy of Lyndie Wright, Julia Jeulin and Rebekah Wild.

The tone can best be conveyed by the representation of the white colonialists and global political leaders. While all are played by black actors, they are differentiated by oversized pink noses that might have been borrowed from a production of Cyrano De Bergerac.

Having started out as a light-hearted beer salesman, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Lumumba begins to show the determination that makes men leaders but also hints of the stubbornness that can all too easily turn them into megalomaniacs and/or martyrs.

In achieving his goal, Lumumba supports and is supported by Joseph Marcell as the weak President Kasavubu and the more sinister General Mobutu, Daniel Kaluuya playing the kind of man born to lead a military coup.

After the interval, the play switches to a more serious tone, eschewing the scene-setting entertainment for a closer investigation of the political and personal angles. This can be harder going but does build to a striking final scene that confirms this work as a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense.

Joe Wright almost pulls it off. The first half manages to wear its learning lightly and is great entertainment. While some of the set piece speeches delivered with passion by Chiwetel Ejiofor make significant points, the pace subsequently tails off, though not until after some fascinating political intrigue has been played out, the Belgians having their Tony Blair moment, inventing weapons of not very mass destruction, and the Cold War powers using Congo as a political pawn.

In summary, this is a brave and for the most part highly enjoyable venture by the Young Vic that deserves to be seen, although a little judicious cutting would have done no harm.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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