As themes go, colonialism, civil war and genocide are not the lightest of fares. On the other hand, music, dance, puppets usually signal a frothier approach. In the Young Vic production of A Season in the Congo, a play by by Aimé Césaire, translated by Ralph Manheim and directed by Joe Wright, the two come together in an unconventional union. The result is engaging and enlightening, always interesting, often heartbreaking.
Play and production are not perfect: far too many scenes revolve around big speeches, some public, some private, speeches nevertheless. They sit well with the important themes of the play but stifle the complexities and subtleties of the human drama. The stylised action both opens up the imagination but occasionally blunts the impact. Not all characters get the sharp definition they deserve.
And yet, the story is so powerful, the staging so inventive and the lead actor so charismatic that the weaknesses fade into the background.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor of spiritual elegance and immense talent, is the natural centre of the universe. As Patrice Lumumba, looking like a cross between Malcolm X and, funnily, my dad (it’s the glasses) he is a fighter who feels freedom like a physical need. His arguments, intellectually articulate, are still rooted to the earth, light, air. His elation, hope not yet thwarted, is more heartbreaking than his downfall.
Daniel Kaluuya as Joseph Mobutu and Joseph Mydell as president Kasavudu provide good support: Kaluuya, the fresh faced youth, effortlessly conveys the insipid effect of power, Mydell balances on a subtle feeling of regret, even in his happiest moments. The rest of the cast demonstrate a unique ability for acting, dancing and singing but some times individual characters become blurry.
The staging has visual ambition that often pays off in a spectacular way: a dance sequence when soldiers are kitted with weapons matches visual flair with a powerful, if ambiguous, message. The last scene, a cross between the last supper and the lamb being led to the slaughter, combines strong associations poignantly.
The set, designed by Lizzie Clachan, opens up the Young Vic stage and part of the auditorium to create a stone backyard in the african sun. It’s the kind of place, blessed with light and physical beauty, one dreams of. It’s also the kind of place where the stones are stained with human blood and remorseless violence.
Air condition rating (introduced especially for this all too rare London heatwave): 5/5, auditorium nice and cool, vital for a production that’s close to 3 hours.