A Season in the Congo

Theatre , Off-West End
Critics' choice
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • 4 out of 5 stars
(5 user reviews)
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© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba)

© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba)

© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba) and Joan Iyiola (Pauline Lumumba)

© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba) and Daniel Kaluuya (Joseph Mobutu)

© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba)

© Johan Persson

Kurt Egyiawan, Brian Bovell (Bakongo Tribesman), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba), Joseph Mydell, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Nandi Bhebhe and Oliver Tida (Batetela Tribesman)

© Johan Persson


© Johan Persson

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Patrice Lumumba) and Daniel Kaluuya (Joseph Mobutu)

If you thought director Joe Wright’s recent film version of ‘Anna Karenina’ – set entirely on a theatre stage – was on the stylised side, then just wait to see what he’s done with an actual stage play.

Even by the prodigiously visual standards of the Young Vic, Wright’s production of French polymath Aimé Césaire's 1966 sort-of-tragedy ‘A Season in the Congo’ is eye-popping stuff, a rainbow blur of song and dance, puppets and people, polyrhythms and sub bass, comedy and tragedy that spins and swirls like a tropical storm as it paints the last few years in the life of Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in vividly impressionistic brushstrokes.

Alive with song and light and motion and colour, with the Belgian colonial forces of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s played by black actors wearing piggy white masks and the Belgian government represented by a posse of grotesque giant puppets, Wright’s production recalls Rupert Goold’s 2009 hit ‘Enron’ in its demonic, ultra-stylised verve.

What ‘Enron’ had that ‘A Season in the Congo’ lacks was razor sharp lucidity – Césaire’s text keeps an eye on the big picture, but we’re often left to work out finer details ourselves, and he has little interest in his characters’ backstories or inner lives.

What ‘A Season in the Congo’ emphatically possesses that ‘Enron’ lacked, however, is a titanic central performance. Returning to the stage after a lengthy absence, Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly commanding as Lumumba, the beer salesman turned prime minister turned pariah turned martyr.

He makes for an astounding rhetorician, his voice ringing and resonating through every molecule of the theatre as he outlines his love of country and the dream of a free Africa with preacherly zeal and populist humour. Ejiofor makes a virtue, almost, of the fact that Césaire provides barely a glimpse into Lumumba’s inner thoughts. A divisive figure for all that he was shafted by Western meddling, Lumumba is presented here as neither saint nor sinner but as a politician. We see him as the Congolese people would see him, a charming and potent figure in the centre of a revolutionary storm that is beyond his control.

Ejiofor is the weight that stops Wright’s high-concept production blowing away on a gust of its own cleverness, the glue that binds together Césaire’s richly poetic but thin text. As his downfall approaches, we don’t so much mourn the end of a good bloke, as the passing of a truly extraordinary statesman.

By Andrzej Lukowski

Event phone: 020 7922 2922
Event website: http://www.youngvic.org

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4.4 / 5

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Christine Gaylarde

Pay no attention to those paltry persons who decry the author. This is an outstanding production with an outstanding cast. I felt my heart dancing with the actors in the opening scene and at Independence. I had tears in my eyes when Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Lumumba, proclaimed his love and wishes for the new "State" of Congo. I laughed at the rhyming puppets, while shivering at their message. I marveled at the acting, dancing, costumes and the set. The emotions this production caused are still riding high. And it made me think, which is the most important thing of all.

Catherine Hoskyns

The clever thing about this production is that the apparent gimmickry - puppets, wigs, masks, nose shields, miniature parachutists and refugees - far from destroying the power of this truly terrible story actually reinforces it by revealing the reality at its core. Part of the reason for this is the authenticity of the grassroots Congolese bar and street culture, expressed in music and dance, which convincingly portrays a milieu which understood Lumumba and from which he sprang. The essence of this is expressed in the chorus figure - a man though he looks like an elderly woman - who comments in gnomic terms as the events unfold. He speaks a regional Congolese language (Tshiluba) and the essence of what he says is casualty expressed in English by whichever actor happens to be passing. Lumumba's 'fault' was that he claimed the Congo's riches for the people and tried to mobilise the Congolese to demand a real independence (uhuru) rather than a compromised sovereignty (dipenda). He couldn't be bought off so he had to be killed.. The audience at the preview performance I attended was young and diverse, testifying to the ongoing resonance of the Lumumba story. Africa's continuing lack of control over its own resources and the ruthless removal or corruption of anyone who opposes this or suggests a different way, is a story as relevant today as it was in the sixties.


Absolutely outstanding show. We wouldn't be in Africa, if we did not having music and dance. The whole drama is mesmerizing for the way it puts together the scenery, suspense, music and dance to make it even better than most shows telling the story of prominant Africans. Run and get your tickets by whatever means necessary. Witness drama at its best.

Stephen Budd

This is an extraordinary melange of music and high drama, staged beautifully and mixing music, dance, drama and puppetry to bring alive this most turbulent period of modern African history. I cannot imagine being more satisfied than i was when I exited. Chiwetel Ejiofor is staggering in the lead role set in the courtyard of a Conglose nightclub, so real looking I had to blink hard to remind myself I wasnt in Kinshasa. If you are interested in Africa, you cannot afford to miss this. The Music, both played live and with tunes recorded in Kinshasa by Damon Albarn for his DRC Music project is also a highlight.