A SEASON IN THE CONGO
Young Vic | By Xenobe Purvis
THE Young Vic stage is transformed into a busy Congolese bar at the opening of A Season in the Congo, Aimé Césaire’s play about the African country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Out of the muddle emerges a beer salesman – Lumumba – selling dreams of independence from the corrupting West, which is vividly represented by a puppet-show in the play’s margins.
The puppet-show is fun and breaks up the intricacies of political history through which Césaire speeds. Director Joe Wright’s decision to include it, together with singing, dancing, sound effects and an immersive set (the bar onstage is open to the audience), could feel over-stylised, but works. The music complements the Congolese feel of the production, while the puppetry suits the stiffness of Césaire’s couplets. The slow-motion war scenes add power rather than farce.
As Lumumba, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s moments of quiet reflection temper the busy choreography elsewhere, and he is supported by a cast of startling versatility, who flit between nationalities with chameleon ease.
The production comes at a pertinent time. This year marks the centenary of Césaire’s birth, and the coalition of Wright’s direction and Ejiofor’s expression does the playwright’s wonderfully lyrical writing justice. Yet the play’s relevance reaches further: in a time when America’s influence is everywhere – from the Middle East to our computers screens – the part it played in bankrolling Lumumba’s assassination cannot be overlooked. Nor, Wright reminds us, can the continuing deprivation of the Congolese people be ignored.
Take from the theatre whatever messages you will; you cannot help but leave, with gunshots ringing in your ears, a flurry of colours running through your mind and the memory of a truly mesmeric central performance.