“This is our Africa”
The curse of theatre addiction is that even when I know I don’t want to see something, I quite often end up going anyway, especially when it has been well recommended by friends and colleagues. So it was with the Young Vic’s A Season in the Congo, particularly galling as someone very kind indeed offered to queue for dayseats… Joe Wright’s theatrical debut as a director came earlier this year with Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar, a production I wasn’t much enamoured with, but he kicks into another gear altogether with this 1966 play by Aimé Césaire about the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, one of the men who led the Democratic Republic of Congo to independence.
It’s a vastly collaborative work, pulling together wide-ranging artistic elements into a hugely theatrical experience which is hugely ambitious and was clearly well-received, though I found it to be distracting and distancing. Choreographer (and co-director) Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui intersperses numerous dance sequences, musician Kabongo Tshisensa makes a Brechtian troubadour-like figure who passes comment throughout on the action in tribal dialect, puppets and masks are used to represent the white characters and colonial powers whose influences are very much in decline. They’re undoubtedly impressively done yet for me, all over-used, reducing their impact and padding out an already healthy run-time unnecessarily.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lumumba is a towering performance at the centre of the play, but one which lacks much nuance as his default mode here is a shouty feverishness, which made him less of a tragic figure than perhaps Césaire intended. In his final moments though, when he is toppled from the prime ministership, there’s a deeply affecting mood that resonates with desperate sadness. As his Brutus-like colleague, Daniel Kaluuya’s Colonel Mobutu has all the requisite glowering menace but again, suffers from a lack of complexity as the tangled world of politics is reduced to an overly simplified narrative.
The end result was a story that dazzled with its initial diversity but in spreading itself so thinly over its constituent parts, it soon revealed its lack of real dramatic substance and its consequent lack of engagement with my attentions.