Friday, August 23, 2013

A Season in the Congo

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba
I've wanted to see Aimé Césaire's extraordinary play for years - so I was very excited to see it announced at the Young Vic, especially with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the leading role of Congo's first post-colonial Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. I wasn't disappointed.  He gives a brilliant, multi-faceted performance at the centre of a thrilling, complex and provocative production.

But you know that already from the reviews.  I don't disagree with them at all about the terrific central performance and the thrilling production.  Where I do part company with the consensus is around what it all adds up to.  Ejiofor's performance is so very powerful that critics have tended to read the play as "The Tragedy of Patrice Lumumba", and to treat the central figure as a martyr for post-colonial independence.  This seems to me to belittle the play, which actually takes quite a sceptical position with regard to Lumumba's idealism, charisma and rhetoric.  When we first see him, he is selling beer - and the play continues to associate him with various forms of intoxication; including the sexual, when he's seen in a sleazy bar, and above all the politically romantic.  In a way this is self-criticism from Césaire, the apostle of négritude,  and that's perhaps what gives this drama such intensity and makes it so disturbing.

The fact that the critics (and some audience members) haven't quite "got" this is partly to do with one production decision.  In general, the piece is superbly directed by Joe Wright, but to my mind he's made a mistake in casting Kabongo Tshisensa as the Likembe Player.  Tshisensa is a compelling presence, and it's lovely to hear him speak in an indigenous Congolese language - but the effect of this is to make him distant from the audience, as his words have to be translated by other actors - the first time, by Ejiofor himself.  So the English-speaking actor, the translator, feels closer to the audience than the Likembe Player.  Now, the role of the Likembe Player is to mediate between the audience and the drama - he is a storyteller and a commentator in a Brechtian style, albeit using a proverbial African mode of speech.  So he has to feel close to the audience, and in that way serves to distance Lumumba, allowing us to view him in a more sceptical light, and not to identify so fully with his idealism and passion.

It doesn't stop the play feeling terribly immediate and pertinent, though.  After all, it's about a democratically elected leader whose ideology is at odds with that of the dominant West, and who is therefore deposed by a US-backed military coup.  This as we watch the slaughter on the streets of Cairo....

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