As I sat waiting for A Season in the Congo, I was struck by how much more of London there was at the Young Vic. There were buxom, Laura Ashley skirted women; teenagers in their requisite black uniform with matching eyeliner and messy ponytail fountains; older men in calf-high black socks and beige Birkenstocks and hip, colourful young women in thigh-kissing chiffon. The sartorial choices were a hopeful reflection of the summer weather but more seriously, I wondered why it seemed a more welcoming space than the National Theatre? A drama teacher I met suggested that it's because the Young Vic is experimental with a wide repertoire that appeals to open minds. This may be true and it's worth a longer discussion than this review allows but, mind-opening this play certainly was.
Walking into the theatre which sits roughly 400 in a half circle, the actors were already mis-en-place. They walked through the audience, welcoming us and giving us the chance to absorb the energy of the bustling Stanleyville city centre where the play is predominately set. It felt instantly familiar, sitting there before the large, unpainted multi-story concrete building with its harsh flickering fluorescent light. It might have been Osu "Oxford Street" in Accra, with its oppressive heat-trapping buildings, just by the notorious Macumba. I had a place at one of the round tables in the orchestra which was retiled to resemble a swimming pool in tropical Congo. And while this recreated the immediacy of a "people's story" it also recreated an intimacy of an olfactory kind in London's summer heat.
The play presents the political events of 1955-1961, but focuses on the key year up to January 1961 whenLumumba, along with two of his colleagues, was beaten, shot and then dissolved in acid. It's a curious retracing of the Atlantic triangle to see a play written by Martiniquan Aimé Cesaire about the Congo wresting political independence from Belgium on the London stage. It's a longish play with two halves of an hour and fifteen minutes. It's also an education. It shows how the present-day fortunes of such a large and mineral rich country were sown among its three hundred strong tribes at independence. This isn't a small point: there's an interesting analogy early in the play that the tribal divisions of African countries are like the fierce loyalties that are sworn to local beer brands. This is amusing but accurate and it makes the wider argument that the contemporary tool for political organisation and subversion were no longer just guns, germs and steel, but also brands. The play holds Eisenhower, his CIA, the UN, the Belgian government and monarchy culpable. It shows how each of them helped to manipulate personal and tribal interests, particularly in Katanga, to such devastating effect.
Chitewel Ejiofor is charismatic and maddening as Lumumba; unyielding and shockingly naïve in his ready rhetoric. Lumumba clearly understands the importance of spinning the media, but it seems he underestimates how severe are the problems facing him and the newly-born nation. We are reminded how much of a people's man he was: he had support on the streets, the brothels and with the ordinary soldier but even then he overestimates their drive and power. In Ejiofor's portrayal of Lumumba you sense the loneliness of following through with so massive a dream. You begin to wonder if poetic theorists can be good rulers?
We see Lumumba's complexity and I begin to dislike this dismissive husband. It's shocking to hear so firm an anti-colonial leader say to his wife that in Congolese dress she cannot attend the Independence Ceremony. Only in Western dress, he says, can she be a woman of the world and the future. There is one tender moment in the play between him and his wife Pauline (Joan Iyiola) and even then you know his attention is elsewhere. He is charmingly manipulative when he calls her Mama Congo as she tells him that she understands that she may not be as seductive as the glory of a nation.
"I do not bear the name of a river or a mountain. I carry the name of a woman, Pauline."
He also makes me stand in respect at the sheer physical energy it takes to fuel his ambition. I hadn't quite appreciated the frenzy of euphoria just before and at independence that must have swept people up in a near manic-high. I think of my near octogenarian father who was in his early twenties when Ghana became independent and I start to wish that this had been my time too.
The similarities between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld (Kurt Egyiawan) are remarkable. They are mirror images of one another: men doggedly attached to their principles. With Lumumba it's his wife Pauline who suffers; with Hammarskjöld it was the future of the Congo. That the two men died within eight months of each other by political intrigue, pursuing their truth for this one country is bitter sweet.
Daniel Kaluuya's Mobutu is delicately drawn. You see him growing from a young friend of Lumumba's into a powerful, stubborn, and arresting head of state complete with majestic headgear. You also see a neatness in the way a revolutionary hero and despot treat a country: it's a beloved thing that can lead you to lose all reason. This silliness that politics can descend into is played out well by a newly-confident Mobutu who says
"Kasa-Vubu fires you, you fire Kasa-Vubu. Now I fire you both!"
In the end the men play at one-upmanship and the people suffer; Congo was destroyed in seven months.
You get the strong sense that Joe Wright's production wants to pay homage to the Congo and its people. Real care has been shown, from the likembe playing Tshisensa to Botalatala whose art, made from material salvaged from the streets of Kinshasa, graces the gallery upstairs. Wright and some of the company visited the DRC before rehearsals began. The music and dancing can be distracting and feel like it is filling time. The energy of much of the singing can provide respite from what is heavy material but in the end it can also feel like the two contrasts don't come together to make a smooth whole. This makes what is already an impressive story feel, at times, flabby.
This is an engaging piece with much in its favour, not least Wright's atmospheric production. Make an event of it: have something at The Cut, the restaurant on the ground floor. I recommend the soft-shelled crab burger. You'll need to refuel after that substantial lesson.
A Season in the Congo; The Young Vic, showing until 24 August.