“For the duration of our story, you will be everybody and everything. The dead, the living, the sun, the moon, the clap of thunder, the people oppressed and those oppressing. Are you ready?”
From the outset, that bold line couldn’t be nearer the truth. For the entirety of the performance, this immersive theatrical experience from Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba involves the audience in a dynamic and challenging way. It is both complex and intuitively easy, and I can well see this style becoming another way of presenting theatre to the masses.
A bold take on the blood-soaked history of South Africa, it combines new and traditional theatrical conventions to tell the story of a family in tumult. The titular tree is its metaphorical representation – the tangled roots that bind together a family struggling to understand the past.
As London-born Kaelo, Alfred Enoch viscerally portrays a young man on a mission to find out what happened to his father. Returning to South Africa, where his staunch Afrikaans grandmother Elzebe – played perfectly by Sinead Cusack – still lives, Kaelo finally begins to understand what happened to his parents.
Cusack delivers all the feels and some of the finest moments of interaction alongside Alfred Enoch. Patrice Naiambana as Gweki is superb. His jovial nature and rambunctious laugh hides a steel that has seen far too much pain across his native land. The character arc of Joan Iyiola as Ofentse – the half-sister of Kaelo – is not fleshed out as much as I would like by the resolution of the play. Despite this, Iyiola is a commanding presence on stage and incredible to watch.
A special mention must also go to Penny Dyer, her work as a dialect coach clearly paid off. Cusack’s Elzebe and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Kaelo’s mother Cezanne both sport superb Afrikaans accents that hook you in from the very first. Cezanne is a brilliantly realised character and Briggs-Owen is great to watch.
In essence, the plot is simple, but I feel it is all the better for it. The combination of lighting, sound, contemporary dance and an evocative set is beautifully offset by the simplicity of the story. Jon Bausor must be commended for his incredible set and costume design. He delivers the bright colours of the veldt and the finale, when the tree is lifted up across the stage by cast and audience, is moving. I shed a tear for those who have lost their lives in South Africa. There is no easy answer to all the wrongs that have happened there.
Kwei-Armah and Elba have changed the script and delivered a contemporary piece of theatre that challenges preconceived notions. If you’re thinking of taking your seats in the auditorium before the show and quietly settling in, think again. The audience walks into a raucous party with many of the main characters dancing and inviting you onto the stage to dance with them. I dare you to get in there!
Tree is playing at the Young Vic until 24 August 2019. For more information and tickets, visit the Young Vic website.