A Season in the Congo

The Young Vic Theatre is virtually unrecognisable at the minute. It is home to A Season in the Congo written by Aimé Césaire, and features one of the most glorious ensemble casts I have seen in a while.

Upon entering the vastly different auditorium, which is home to amazing set design from Lizzie Clachan, it depicts a run down swimming pool arena, in which the audience sit around in the bottom of the empty pool. It is built up so generously that I struggled to believe that it was the same theatre that I visited six months previously. It is certainly one of the major strengths of the play.

Another strength lies in the brilliant ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads the company with his accurate likeness of Patrice Lumumba, which the play is centred around. He depicts the rise and demise of Lumumba as he leads the Congo to independence from Belgian Colonists in 1960, but who is murdered mere months later by Congolese separatists supported by Belgium and the USA. Ejiofor’s role is not an easy one, populated by very long speeches but he pulls it off with great ferociousness. The company as the Katangan Secessionists, Belgian and International Officials and civilians back Ejiofor, and Joseph Mydell and Daniel Kaluuya as the President and Colonel respectively.

The music and choreography (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) was by was my favourite part, though. It proved to be a great storyteller, mixing African and modern dance to showcase the soldier’s fights and brutality with ease, and the pulsing beats echoed through the theatre. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t room for more of it. Puppets were also a sizeable factor of the show, Belgian politicians shown as talking heads, vultures circling Lumumba as the shadows closed in on him, evacuees and parachutists over the audiences’ heads. They provide an imagery that is poignant but still satirical.

I think what doesn’t quite work however, is how the script is practically forced upon the audience in such a way that you almost feel that you’re being taught a rather long history lesson. You are told of captures, arrests and debates, but these are never actually dramatised, and I feel it was to the play’s disadvantage. For all the long speeches, an action scene or two may not have gone amiss.

Still, the set, incandescent lighting (Jon Clark) and slow motion fight scenes by Bret Yount, all under the watchful eye of Joe Wright (best known for films Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice), provides quite a statement of a night at the theatre.

It is bold in its story, its direction and its visual tricks in the puppetry and dance, but it feels a little mismatched. Still, it provides a well tunes, thought-provoking night at the theatre.

A Season in the Congo is playing at The Young Vic Theatre until 24 August 2013. For more information and tickets, see The Young Vic Theatre website.
Photo by Johan Persson