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09/07/2013 18:13 BST | Updated 06/09/2013 06:12 BST

Review: A Season in the Congo

Young Vic Theatre, London

www.youngvic.org

To 17 August

Whenever I go to the theatre, I hope I'm going to witness something so bold, a production so head-turning that it gets talked about as a seminal moment for years to come. It's what keeps me going back, that hope of seeing a piece so inspirational that even months later, whenever it is mentioned, I'll throw my hand up in the air and say, 'I was there.' A Season in the Congo may well belong in that privileged category.

It is a production of such colour and passion that I came out thrilled and honoured to have seen it. There's so much to applaud - the subject matter, the performances, the choreography, the score, the design, the satire, the poetry... The list just goes on and on.

A Season in the Congo is that very rare beast - an inventive, intellectual but emotional and thought-provoking production. It tells the rise and demise of Patrice Lumumba, the man who led the Congo to independence from the Belgian colonialists in 1960, only to be murdered months later by Congolese separatists supported by Belgium and the USA.

Director Joe Wright can always be relied upon to give a visual treat, and the spectacle of the production is a wonder, a real cacophony of ideas.

The set design (Lizzie Clachan) is bold and revealing. The main theatre of the Young Vic has been transformed into a run-down public swimming pool, a place which may been the place for high-society in colonised Congo but now fallen into disrepair. The audience sit at the bottom of the drained pool as the production unfolds around them.

There's also an inventive use of puppetry. Belgian politicians are portrayed as talking heads always looking down from above, rather than involved in the mud and dirt on the ground. Lone vultures also circle ever closer as the shadows close in on Lumumba. Often when puppetry is used in productions, it's usually thrown centre-stage as the main draw so it's fantastic to see it used minimally here but to such great effect.

The production pulses with music and the dancing infuses the drama with passion. Acclaimed choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui fills the production with African dance, adding to the visual and emotional heart of the play.

Given the subject matter, there's a risk, as with all political theatre, that the production could become too earnest, too dry. Wright prevents this with great use of satire.

The earnest neutrality of the UN as Congo descends into bloody civil war is reduced to as much use as a beauty parade as UN staff parade around the Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, like Miss World contestants. Western powers are also not exempt as the snout-nosed prosthetics on each one of them so ably demonstrates.

Given this production is brimming with creativity and energy, it may seem mean to point out its flaws. But given that a number of the audience didn't come back after the interval, they were hard to ignore.

Joe Wright has his detractors. Many accuse him of style over substance and there is fodder for those critics here.

There seems such urgency to get to Lumumba's demise that the rise of the man is almost overlooked entirely. It is crucial, if we are to feel the pain of his fall that we get to know Lumumba, to understand him, on his way up.

The audience is spoon fed (or should that be force fed?) all the information they need to know to get to that point. There's an awful lot of tell in the first 30 minutes and not a lot of show. Michael Gove would no doubt be pleased but this should not be a history lesson.

It is not until we get to the day of Lumumba's inauguration and a tender scene between the Prime Minister-elect and his wife that we get to the heart of the man. By this point, an awful lot has happened - Lumumba has been inflaming protests, hundreds of his supporters have been massacred, Lumumba himself has been arrested and tortured yet seemingly against all these odds, Congolese independence has been won.

But most of this flies right past the audience as none of it is dramatized. We are not engaged.

This drama's finest moments are when Lumumba shows us his colours, not when we are told what they are. For example, when Lumumba suddenly interrupts the Belgian King's patronising speech on Independence Day to denounce the Belgians for their corruption and torture, we finally feel the man's passion and bravery.

Similarly when his wife refuses to wear the Jackie O shift dress Lumumba has bought her for the occasion, preferring instead to remain resolutely in traditional African dress, we can see the man's faults.

Fortunately much of the damage of this race to 1960 and Independence Day is addressed through an emotional and absorbing second half and a towering performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Let's be frank about this, Chiwetel Ejiofor is absolutely amazing. His interpretation doesn't shy away from Lumumba's many flaws. He humanises the man, a man considered by many in Africa to be a prophet, a Messiah. He embraces Lumumba's many contradictions and brings to life the humour and the passions of the man. By doing so, we are drawn to him, care for him and our hearts break for him when we too realise his dream of a free and peaceful Congo is lost.

He also shows Lumumba's great qualities. There are a number of impassioned political speeches in the play, to be expected given the man's oratory skills. These could have been long, breaking up the drive of the play, but instead, in Ejiofor's hands, these are moments of great insight ("everything crooked will be straightened.").

Though Ejiofor is superb, incredible, it is impossible to overlook the talents and performances in the rest of the cast. The supporting cast is so strong and so multi-talented - acting, singing, dancing - that they deserve as much applause themselves. Black actors still suffer with tokenism in theatrical productions in the West End so it's a thrill to see this cast take their chance in the sun with such aplomb.

It is such a joy to see theatre take on the challenge of representing meaningful political events, and not to do so in a dry, sterile format. A Season in the Congo refuses to pull its punches and also refuses to portray its characters as either purely good or purely bad. In the Congo, as in life, everything is shades of grey. This production is stunning. But it could have been perfection. So close.