In an era where recordings of things have largely lost their value, the increased fetishisation of the ‘I was there’ moment reaches new heights in ‘Rumble in the Jungle Rematch’.
It is, in a nutshell, an immersive theatre recreation of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 clash in Zaire, aka the Rumble in the Jungle, aka the most famous boxing match in history.
Ooops, did I use the ‘t’ word? ‘Theatre’ is kept well out of any of the descriptions, presumably to increase the chances of appealing to a sports-type crowd that might not really be up for the idea of Watching A Play.
But it is, basically, recognisable as the vanilla brand of immersive theatre wherein we’re all dumped in a big room together and are allowed to potter about and enjoy cursory interactions with the various actors wandering around.
Never at any point did I come close thinking I was in Kinshasa, 1974 rather than Canary Wharf, 2023. But, crucially, Miguel Hernando Torres Umba’s production makes the right gestures in that direction. A lazier production might make the barest nod towards Central Africa and shruggingly offer us American snacks and music. Here, however, we get a tasty and genuinely interesting menu of Congolese street food (admittedly at wallet-scouringly expensive prices). And the music is wonderful, a high energy, highlife mix of afrobeat and scorching American funk, courtesy of Guy Kelton-Jones’s James Brown – the seamless integration of Brown and the ‘local’ musicians is absolutely not something that happened in real life, but this a delightful fantasy of what might have been.
Kimane Juneau’s charismatic Ali is good fun, with the right physique and wit – he obviously has all the best lines, but he dispatches them with relish. Joshua C Jackson’s tank-like Foreman feels less well-served by Tristan Tynn-Aiduenu’s text, and often sits around looking a bit constipated, though unquestionably the real man did lack Ali’s formidable capacity for banter.
Any which way, it all builds in a pleasant blur of food, music and light theatricality until we reach the main event. The actual match presents a challenge: the nimble Ali’s highly successful tactic of knackering big hitter Foreman out isn’t necessarily that edifying to watch if you already know the outcome. The production hits on a solid – albeit it has to be said, theatrical – solution. Slick, energetic fight choreography from Alex Payne looks terrific, and it’s smartly juxtaposed with blown-up footage of the actual fight (the actors obviously aren’t actually punching each other). As it wears on, some rounds are skipped and a quartet of ‘locals’ start to give a poetic summary of events… which is perfectly okay.
Then it gets a bit much: a slightly mawkish victory speech from Ali is just about fine. But then the magical quartet of locals somewhat jaw-droppingly do a speech about Foreman that suggests he was crushed by his defeat but would find consolation in the future via his highly successful grill empire – which may be true on some level but is a pretty bizarre note to strike. And their suggestion that Zaire – which was living under a repressive dictatorship in 1974, and would later be wracked by two bloody wars – viewed the match as a moment of healing is, at best, an under-explored statement freighted with the sort of Western saviour complex the production largely avoids.
Still, I don't think anybody is going to approach ‘Rumble in the Jungle Rematch’ expecting a note-perfect recreation of the original event, or a sensitive dive into the politics of ’70s Zaire. Barring a couple of bum notes, this is less a work of historical reenactment, more a respectful and entertaining theatre tribute to the place the Rumble in the Jungle occupies in our cultural imaginations. Maybe not a knockout, but certainly a win on points.