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Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s exhilarating but muddled tribute to South Africa hits the Young Vic
This review is from the Manchester International Festival in July 2019. ‘Tree’ transfers to the Young Vic in August 2019.
Idris Elba’s ‘Tree’ is a funny old project that has had a funny old week. But the spectacular South Africa-set show is finally here, premiering in a dynamic perambulatory production at the Manchester International Festival, before transferring to the Young Vic – the London venue run by its director and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah.
‘Tree’ is on some level an extension of ‘Mi Mandela’, a record Elba and a large cast of musicians crafted in South Africa a few years back – with the song ‘Tree’ addressing the death of Elba’s Sierra Leonean father.
Skip forward a few years, and this has birthed a story about Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), a young, moody, mixed-race Brit struggling to find his place in London after the recent death of his white South African mother. He decides to take her ashes and visit his stern Afrikaans grandmother Elzebe (Sinéad Cusack) whom he has never met. He also desperately wants to find out more about his black father Lundi (played in flashback by Kurt Egyiawan), who died before he was born.
In many ways ‘Tree’ is a very serious show, that sees Kaelo take an odyssey into black South Africa’s troubled recent past and difficult present. Upon arrival, Kaelo has strange dreams about his father, an employee of Elzebe’s, and his armed resistance to apartheid. He also dreams about his white grandfather slaughtering black people. And he eventually tracks down his fiery half-sister Ofentse (Joan Iyiola), who seethes with anger at the Mandela-brokered rainbow nation, believing white farmers’ land must be confiscated.
Despite very solid performances from Enoch and Cusack, the script and characterisation is thin, as the main purpose of ‘Tree’ seems to be serve as a sort of joyous immersive spectacle, with lavish visuals and projections, a lot of dancing and plenty of Elba’s music. The show is in constant motion as the story travels throughout the huge, all-standing room. It unfurls under the huge ring suspended from the ceiling that plays host to Duncan McLean’s impressive projection work. But often it freely moves into – and even above – the crowd via Gregory Maqoma’s kinetic choreography.
It almost feels like a ‘spectacular’ rather than a play, and it feels a bit cognitively dissonant to see such a serious subject matter dealt with in such an ebullient fashion. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether ‘Tree’ wants us to party or cry, and there’s a nagging sense that it could have been more if it had pushed either way: a full-on dance-theatre entertainment, or a knottier and deeper story about the legacy of apartheid less reliant upon tropey characters.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the elephant in the ‘Tree’. The show has been engulfed by a scandal: writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley – who are thanked in Elba’s programme notes – wrote an impassioned blog post detailing their experiences with ‘Tree’, alleging that after years of work on the project they had been frozen out soon after Kwei-Armah was brought on board last year, and that the final script contains ideas they came up with. There’s not much I can usefully say, really: their post is worth a read and I hope the whole horrible mess can be resolved.
If it’s not, then it’s possible that ‘Tree’ will be remembered as much for the scandal as for the show. It is an exhilarating piece of visual theatre that has the guts to talk about some very serious stuff, but in doing so it feels a bit too diffuse: its roots spread wide, but not deep.