Review Round-Up: Chiwetel Ejiofor is a hit in A Season in the Congo
The UK premiere of Aimé Césaire's 1966 play A Season in the Congo, documenting the rise and fall of the Congo's first democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, opened at the Young Vic last week (16 July 2013)
The return of Chiwetel Ejiofor to the London stage... shows him in high classical mode, large in presence and voice... and his portrait of Patrice Lumumba is a powerful Shakespearean performance in a Brechtian epic. Film director Joe Wright follows his theatrical debut in fine style: this is a teeming, noisy, colourful, angry show that tells a cracking, if depressing, story of colonial politics and unleashes a tumult of talent in its cause... Through scenes of political pastiche and satire, explosive theatrical imagery and, most importantly, the tidal wave of rhetoric in his public speeches... Ejiofor comes blazingly into his own. For... this man – and, you feel, this actor – is saying what he really means, and it's a thrilling collision with the audience...
...A Season in the Congo (1966) is a rich and complex examination of the struggles of post-colonial Africa and marks a welcome return to the stage for that outstanding actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a man long lost to film and television. There is a super-abundance of elements to admire here in Aimé Césaire's poetic and detailed text — astonishingly only now receiving its UK premiere — and Ejiofor's impassioned oratory high among them. Even better, however, is Joe Wright's masterful direction. Right from the start, when the lights rise on an opened-out arena-style public space, pulsing with the rhythm and colour of an African night, we know we're in for something special. When used in relation to Wright, ‘directed' doesn't just mean mounted on stage, but shaped with a unique and expansive vision...
... It should attract all lovers of political theatre; and, given that it contains a tremendous performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, anyone who simply relishes fine acting... What gives the play its power is its surprisingly nuanced portrait of Lumumba, who is magnificently embodied by Ejiofor... Ejiofor gives us all of Lumumba's dream of transforming a country he describes as "garbage rotting in the sun" into a place of democratic freedom. But Ejiofor also captures the leader's vanity and political naivety... Wright's production and Lizzie Clachan's design prove political drama can also be intoxicating theatre... In a large cast, there are stand-out performances from Joseph Mydell, as Congo's smooth-talking president, and Daniel Kaluuya as the Macbeth-like Mobutu. And... Césaire's attack on colonialism's tainted legacy suddenly acquires a chilling contemporary resonance.
... Chiwetel Ejiofor inhabits the role with a tremendous sense of dignity and sober self-possession. Looking the part with his suit, spectacles and beard, he stands at the lonely centre of a colourful, sprawling, vibrant dance of death. Lizzie Clachan's monumental set – part crumbling colonial pile, part concrete compound – spills Africa out into the... auditorium, drawing us into a world of exotic sights and sounds and mortal danger, presided over by rifle-toting heavies. If the evening at points descends from non-naturalism into agitprop – with the use of caricature puppets to denote those Bogeymen of the West, bankers and Americans – it retains a heady sense of atmospheric authenticity and, growing in stature as his options shrink, Lumumba's eloquent cry for freedom rings in your ears long after the night's grisly end.
... Chiwetel Ejiofor is perfect, moving between affectionate humanity and high passion... Ejiofor's subtlety is particularly valuable to Joe Wright's storming, spectacular production, because Césaire's 1966 play is a partisan howl of grief at the tragedy and rage at the behaviour of the West... The production crackles. The Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is co-director and keeps the cast leaping, jerking, sexy or violent, elegantly expressive or dancing pain and terror beneath great puppet vultures. It flows as seamlessly as the tale, and the music beats on... Daniel Kaluuya, a Mark Antony to this Caesar, is a strong foil; Joan Iyiola a touching Pauline Lumumba. The real Pauline apparently approved this production. I hope so: Lumumba's deep song of lamentation from his prison cell stays with me still.
Director Joe Wright reduces to silliness a rather simplistic play... Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the republic's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Mr Ejiofor is a powerful actor and he does look passably like the real Lumumba... Daniel Kaluuya plays Joseph Mobutu, the one-time acolyte of Lumumba who became his colonel – and his nemesis. We see little subtlety here, none of the coldness or charisma the real Mobutu must have had. The political power games throughout this play are feebly under-explored. There is something dismayingly naive about it – freshman student direction at best... I hope it is not giving away too much if I say that he is shot at the end. BANG! It was the one moment in a long, boring night that I felt like cheering.
... The choreography, by Wright's co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is vibrant... The interwoven songs are also haunting, drawing on the Congolese music collated by Damon Albarn in 2011... A Season in the Congo thus adds to the Young Vic's already enticing strand of alternative musicals... This production is hit and miss, nonetheless... The disappointment is that Césaire's script is uneven (in Ralph Manheim's translation from the French). Poetic and rudimentary by turns, it's narratively scrappy and, in some ways, seems dated (not incorporating recent claims about MI6 involvement in Lumumba's murder)... Theatrically, Wright isn't yet a safe pair of hands. But the bumpy ride is boldly free-wheeling, and Ejiofor's performance is terrifically taut, the idealistic fire changing to contained panic then transcendent dignity on the point of death.