‘A season in the Congo’ starts the moment we enter the auditorium. A visually striking set dominates the cavernous space of the Young Vic, with brutalist style concrete buildings forming the set of the main stage, and, bizarrely, a disused swimming pool containing the front section of the audience, with tables and an on-stage bar. The cast mingle freely with the audience, and encourage us to purchase ‘genuine Congolese beer’ to help out the local economy (well, actually it looked like Tusker, which is from Kenya, but you have to admire the intention).
The party atmosphere is slightly unsettling, given the subject matter of Aime Cesaire’s play. The title is apparently a pun based on Rimbaud’s poem ‘A season in hell’. The play charts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo, a political leader for whom Cesaire clearly had great admiration. The style is poetic and ideological, focusing on the tragedy of the situation (for both the leader and his people) rather than on detailed political analysis.
Joe Wright’s production shines with vitality and has a visceral quality to it which is very engaging, particularly his use of music and musicians in the cast, and further enhanced by striking choreography from co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The directors maintain the integrity of the play, written from the point of view of the black Congolese (albeit by an author from Martinique), by using an all-black cast and using the simple device of a pink pointed nose on elastic to signify white characters. Only Dag Hammarskjöld is given an extra prop – an unfeasibly blond wig which somehow belies his constant protestations that as a representative of the United Nations he is ‘neutral’. The emerging ‘superpowers’ of the USA and USSR are represented by animal skulls as puppets atop each nation’s flag. This is certainly a portrait of politics with broad brush strokes but which never allows the tragedy of the human condition to be forgotten.
As Lumumba, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a fireball of idealistic energy, intelligent and charismatic in equal measures, and ready with a rousing speech for any occasion, whether it is using the cover of selling beer to promote the notion of a national movement, or reminding the crowd at his inauguration of the trials and tribulations that await the newly formed country. Ejiofor strikes a perfect balance between portraying the humanity and earthiness of Lumumba, whilst bringing an other-wordly, almost fanatical quality – the idealism which was ultimately his downfall.
He is surrounded by a excellent cast, who all use seamless doubling up and costume changes to tell the story with great pace and energy. All were excellent, but Kurt Egyiawan stands out in the dual roles of Dag Hammarskjöld and Moise Tshombe, leader of the breakaway state of Katanga. Joseph Mydell as the President Joseph Kasa-Vubu portrays the moral conflict of a man who wants to do good but ends up powerless to help, and Kabongo Tshisensa brings an ethereal charm to the role of the ‘pesky’ poet, with interludes of delicate likembe music and allegorical fables which are translated by various other characters.
Cesaire’s play is spookily relevant, as we watch the events unfolding in Egypt. The power of the play lies in its insight into human frailties, and Cesaire’s passionate belief that we can and must rise above them.