A glance at the front page of Sunday’s newspapers is a sharp reminder of how relevant the Young Vic’s ‘A Season in the Congo’ feels today. An ousted elected president, 100 dead in shoot-to-kill policy as army moves in is the gist of a horrific read . It’s almost a mirror image of what was happening 50 years ago in the Congo, and the echoes make the performance all the more chilling.
A Season in the Congo follows the complicated and controversial story of Patrice Lumumba, the beer seller turned rebel leader, turned prime minster, as he tries to take his country to democracy. It’s an epic story which in some ways echoes the narrative sweep of Macbeth. Unlike the Scottish play though, the forces which overwhelm Patrice are those of inter tribal rivalry, the army and the dubious role of the West in the affair, whose leaders are brilliantly realised as puppets, one sounding not unlike Tony Blair, revealing itself as nothing but a head on a snakes body. The role of the West (1) is further questioned by the portryal of UN Secretary General Dag Hammmarskjold as a Bob Downe style caricature (complete with dancing girls) but it is Joseph Mobuto, who Patrice himself had appointed as Colonel and Chief of Staff who proves to be Lumumba’s Macduff.
Such an epic tale is given a suitably grand staging by the director Joe Wright. Like his films (Atonement, Anna Karenina) it’s a highly stylised almost cartoonish reading which deals in thrilling, rapid brushstrokes (2). There is something almost joyously naive about the overall effect, as Wright opens the theatrical tool box, and throws everything at the story. So the all black cast indicate they are playing white characters by wearing oversized, grotesque pink noses, the horror of the massacre is indicated through a mix of plastercine fugurines and choreography whilst puppet vultures wait for the moment to pounce. It’s vibrant, compelling stuff – not only is the sweep of the tale clear, but you feel as much in the action (and therefore implicated) as the actors.
It seems to be a tradition in Young Vic shows that the pre-show is as much part of the experience as the show itself. In Hamlet it was a pre-show installation; here you are thrown straight into 1960’s Congo. Lizzie Clachan’s set blurs the lines between stage and performance. Just as the design fluidly crosses into the auditorium so too does the action. You find yourself part of that street scene, invited to buy beer and join the café chatter. This is as vivid an Africa as you could ever hope for on stage.
That sense is created by the colour of the production, the music (led on stage by the enigmatic Kaspy N’Dia and his distinctive, jangling guitar with recorded music inspired by Damon Albarn’s Kinshasa One Two ), the staging, but above all the energy of the huge ensemble cast. Acknowledging the audience at every step of the way they throw themselves life and soul into the piece – breezily moving from puppetry to physical theatre, from intimate exchanges to huge set pieces. With such a strong and joyous ensemble it’s difficult to single out any one performance, but Chiwetel Ejiofor realisation of Lumumba is breathtaking. Initially we see his almost child-like enthusiasm for delivering democracy to his country (a country to be unified, he only half jokingly declares, by beer). But later we see a man struggling both with the trappings of and corrupting effects of power, followed by desperation as he sees his dream fade away, and in the final scenes there is resolve and dignity.
It’s not so much Macbeth that those final scenes echo. A Leonardo de Vinci style Last Supper oversees the final moments of Lumumbo’s life. After the deed is done hands are washed a la Pontious Pilate. Hints of any new beginning are brutally dashed as the soothsayer (who opens the show on a likembe and throughout comments on the action in one of the many Congolese languages, usually translated by a fellow cast member) is silenced for ever. We never hear his final parable; instead we hear the first and only gun shot of the piece. As the shot reverberates around the theatre it drags you out of the world of the play and back into the realities of Congo’s ongoing struggles and the situations in Syria and Egypt.
Gripping stuff – as joyous as it is chilling.
(1) Which leads you to another parallel, as the trail of Bradley Manning comes to an end. His ‘leaks’ have revealed – if nothing else – the realities of international diplomacy (see this Huffington Post article).
(2) I couldn’t help but be reminded of the epic speed painting of Sophie von Hellerann currently on display in First Site (http://www.firstsite.uk.net/page/sophie-von-hellermann-elephant-in-the-room)