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