Joe Wright interview: The big-screen director talks bringing Congolese independence to life in a small theatre.. with puppets

He directs frothy costume dramas – but now he's bringing the murderous truth of civil war to the stage

The most successful films of British director Joe Wright announce themselves with a certain cinematic swish, all period charm and romantic froth, whether it be the muddy skirts and country balls of his Pride and Prejudice, or the upper-crust, if doomed, glamour of Atonement. Meanwhile the 40-year-old's directorial debut for the stage, earlier this year at the Donmar, was Trelawny of the Wells, Arthur Wing Pinero's well-made but light-as-a-feather backstage comedy.

So it would be fair to call his second theatrical outing, A Season in the Congo, something of a departure. It's a fast-and-loose version of Aimé Césaire's 1967 play – translated from French, never before staged in the UK – about the Congolese political leader, Patrice Lumumba, who spearheaded the 1960 move for independence from Belgium, and who was assassinated in 1961. To research the subject – which Wright confesses he knew "very little" about – he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Oxfam, witnessing the on-going, deeply destructive legacy of those troubled political times.

The DRC is still blighted by violence and poverty; Wright speaks of the trip slowly, carefully, as if still trying to assimilate it all: "It was a life-changing experience, really …. We spent a lot of time out in the refugee camps in [Eastern DRC], which were shocking. There are two million people homeless, dispossessed, just in that area. I find man's inhumanity to man extraordinary .... I can't get my head around it."

A Season in the Congo is an epic play, in scale and sweep as well as in the Brechtian sense. Alongside a cast of only eight – furiously playing several roles each – there are five dancers, two Congolese musicians (a chorus of sorts) and larger-than-life-sized puppets. The play should be a riot of energy, music and colour as well as having a politically punchy message. For while he says that visiting the DRC was harrowing, Wright also describes with glee the amazing nightlife in the capital, Kinshasa: "Best clubs I've ever been to in my life. Mind-blowing stuff." High praise indeed from a man who used to create music visuals during the rave and superstar DJ era; no wonder he brought their musicians over for the production.

Wright isn't short on collaborators; in charge of movement is the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who worked on Anna Karenina. "I hero-worship him," says Wright with a little laugh. "There are scenes where Césaire [writes] something like "Civil war". And you go, right: I've got eight actors, how do I do a nation in civil war? And the answer is, I call up Sidi Larbi."

Other collaborators are a little closer to home. Wright's parents ran the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, north London; his sister Sarah now works there too. She and his mum, Lyndie, are providing handmade, large-scale puppets for the show, which Wright is grinningly delighted about.

He's known for repeatedly using the same high-profiles stars (most notably Keira Knightley), but Wright's got himself a hot new leading man: Chiwetel Ejiofor to play Lumumba. Returning to the stage for the first time since his Olivier-winning Othello in 2008, Ejiofor said yes straightaway. Wright recalls: "He recognised in the play something that is potentially searingly beautiful and true and needs to be spoken about."

It's a story Wright is passionately committed to telling, but it was first suggested to him by David Lan at the Young Vic. Lan, who is South African, like Wright's parents, kept A Season in the Congo in his to-do drawer for years.

Wright insists that Lumumba's being relatively unknown is part of the appeal – unlike other revolutionary icons, such as Ghandi or Che Guevara, there's less of a poster-boy popular narrative. On the Oxfam trip, Wright – along with Lan and Ejiofor – met Lumumba's widow and children, and many of his contemporaries. What impression did he get of this man? Wright is convinced: "He wasn't corrupt."

"He had an ideal, and stuck to his ideal, and he spoke the truth, and he was murdered for it, basically. The Belgians, when they 'granted' independence, thought that they would allow the Congolese political independence but maintain economic control. Lumumba had other ideas; he thought that Congolese wealth should be for Congolese people."

The country has always been rich in natural resources which, the West has coveted at intervals, rubber, copper, uranium and coltan (a key component in mobile phones), Wright says: "It's spooky how they seem to have everything that capitalism has wanted all along."

Césaire's play was written swiftly after events unfolded: Congolese independence, the democratic election of Lumumba, a bloody, secessionist civil war, betrayal, and murder – when the facts were often still murky. In the years since, there have been many revelations about who was pulling which strings. Most significantly, the Belgian government and CIA were responsible for the assassination of Lumumba. It's recently been alleged that MI6 were also involved. What impact does this hindsight have when staging the play today?

"We're not sticking to the exact text that Césaire wrote, and I've tried to bring into the production what we've learnt," says Wright. They've added extra scenes, using text from The Congo Cables, by Madeleine G Kalb, which details communications between the CIA, the Belgians and the UN.

Although he's been afforded an insight into the ongoing troubles of the DRC, Wright won't be bringing the play up to date. But he hopes it resonates. "The same thing is going on in the Congo now as was then: it's controlled by Western, capitalist interests," he says. "That's what killed Lumumba; that's what keeps 90 per cent of the population in poverty. It's a scam. It's a failed state. There's not specific reference to the present government [in the show], but there's reference to the fact that the system in place – how a country like Congo is abused by First World greed – is certainly there."

If this all sounds a long way from those nice Hollywood costume dramas, not only does Wright promise that while "the end of the play is dark … along the way there's a lot of lightness, and extraordinary, uplifting beauty" – he also reveals his next film project. There was talk of Fifty Shades of Grey, before Sam Taylor-Johnson was named director last week. Anyway, "the schedules didn't work".

It's a live-action version of The Little Mermaid, based on a production he saw "thousands" of times, which his late father staged with puppets. It'll be less saccharine than Disney's, which he claims not to have seen, and closer to Hans Christian Andersen's original.

So Wright will continue to straddle the line between theatre and film. He also goes to the theatre more than the cinema, finding London theatre "the most exciting in the world; it's probably why Hollywood films are populated by British actors now". Being part of it this scene is, he hopes, "making me a better film-maker".

"Film has become a very passive experience, but with theatre there is a contract made with the audience, where they participate. That's why my parents' puppet theatre was such a special place – people used their imaginations. It's a muscle that needs using."

'A Season in the Congo', Young Vic, 6 July-17 August; young.vic.org

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'