The Theatreguide.London Review
Season In The Congo
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2013
A political polemic from the 1960s becomes a colourful and inventive theatrical experience without losing any of its anger as director Joe Wright puts his distinctive touch on this historical drama by Aimé Césaire.
Césaire's subject is the very brief experience of democracy in the Congo in 1960, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba.
(Lumumba led the popular uprising that resulted in the end of a century of Belgian rule in the Congo and was elected its first Prime Minister, only to be met almost immediately with regional rebellions and with dissension within his party, leading in barely a year to civil war, several changes in power, anarchy, Lumumba's murder and eventually the seizing of power by Joseph Mobutu, who ruled for 32 years.)
Aimé Césaire's sympathies and interpretation of history are clear and possibly correct. His Lumumba is an unquestioned hero, blemished only slightly by a single-mindedness that places Congolese independence and the ultimate liberation of all of Africa above everything else and by the messianic conviction that he's the man to do it.
Dismissing most of Lumumba's local foes and betraying friends as insignificant, Césaire makes the ultimate villains the Europeans (mainly Belgian) who subsidise Lumumba's rivals in order to control the country's mineral wealth, and the United Nations and other outsiders who use the mask of neutrality to let the democracy collapse.
Joe Wright and co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui envelop this always clear story in an embrace of African music and dance and unending theatrical inventiveness. Battles are represented by stylised choreography, while an invading army is made up of model planes and dropping toy parachutes.
A constantly corrected blackboard keeps us current month-by-month and eventually day-by-day as history races past. The black cast become white characters by donning pink Cyrano noses while other Europeans are played by comic puppets. (The USA and USSR are fossil dinosaurs.)
As Lumumba, Chiwetel Ejiofor dominates the action, creating a character of as much depth as the playwright's black-and-white (pun inescapable and germane) morality allows. Ejiofor makes no attempt to hide the man's egotism and dangerous inflexibility, but never allows questions of his sincerity and leaves us with the image of a flawed but very real hero.
Few others in the cast are given the opportunity to leave much impression, Daniel Kaluuya effectively sketching Mobutu's journey from ally to enemy and Sharon Duncan-Brewster injecting some warmth as the hostess of Lumumba's favourite bar.
To be honest, you may occasionally get the feeling that they're trying too hard to be clever or to keep us aware that we're in Africa, and at close to three hours the evening inevitably has its low-energy patches. We could probably survive with a little less of the griot played by Kabongo Tshisensa, whose gnomic parables, then laboriously translated into English, punctuate every scene.
But, its strengths far outweighing its weaknesses, this is a fascinating, informative and almost uninterruptedly entertaining evening's theatre.
Review - A Season In The Congo - Young Vic 2013