Young Vic, London

Theatre review: A Season in the Congo - Doo-wop into the heart of darkness

4.00

Tribal conflicts and predatory bankers poison post-colonial ideals in a play that's taken 50 years to reach the British stage

Who can you trust? Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed he had intended to benefit Central Africa's tribes. In truth, he was a land-grabbing colonialist who, as the de facto sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885, presided over forced labour and atrocities – prompting Joseph Conrad to pen Heart of Darkness.

A Season in the Congo – by the Caribbean writer and black politician Aimé Césaire – skips that backstory and zooms in on the Congolese independence movement, fermenting in the late 1950s.

In the Young Vic's spasmodically electrifying UK premiere – staged by film-turned-theatre director Joe Wright – Belgian troops patrol a Congolese market square. Here, a natty guy, in horn-rimmed glasses, is hawking beer to the locals, and to audience members seated at tables around the thrust stage.

The salesman is Patrice Lumumba (Chiwetel Ejiofor), stealthily transmogrifying into a revolutionary orator and leader of the MNC (Mouvement National Congolais). Turned into a humorous musical number, his pitch is accompanied by a doo-wop jingle, chorused by hip-wiggling chicks. But in the blink of an eye they transform into air-punching radicals.

The choreography, by Wright's co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is vibrant. At one point, Lumumba hangs out in a bar where smooching couples slink and spin. Later, that same crowd is seen massacring each other in pulsating slow motion, as the new Democratic Republic of Congo spirals into a tribally divided bloodbath – to Lumumba's dismay.

The interwoven songs are also haunting, drawing on the Congolese music collated by Damon Albarn in 2011 (for the album Kinshasa One Two) – embracing ethnic ululations and folk ballads. 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. Certainly, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Congo's post-colonial troubles look topical again (albeit not wholly comparable). Though elected prime minister, Ejiofor's Lumumba is soon ousted in a military coup that the West doesn't halt, deeming him antipathetic to their interests.

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).

A Season in the Congo was written in the late Sixties, hence Wright throws in retro ingredients including Dario Fo-ish clowning (with the all-black cast playing whites with Commedia-style pink noses). That unfortunately falls flat, as do the vulture-like capitalists, embodied by puppets, like Sesame Street mutations. 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.

In The Color Purple (Menier Chocolate Factory, London ***), an African-American woman, Celie, has to revolt against her own repressive menfolk. In this eventually feelgood musical – first staged on Broadway in 2005, based on Alice Walker's bestselling novel and the movie – Celie starts out as an intimidated walkover in early 20th-century Georgia. She has been raped by her stepfather and is treated like dirt by her whip-wielding husband, Albert – a descendant of plantation slaves.

In John Doyle's production at the Menier – with just wooden chairs on a long thrust stage – Cynthia Erivo's diminutive Celie endures domestic slavery with the patience of a saint. Then she gets mad at God (briefly); sees her stepson loving a feisty woman; and finds sapphic bliss in the kiss of Nicola Hughes's Shug Avery – the roving mistress of Christopher Colquhoun's Albert. Finally, Celie breaks free, telling him to go hang.

A big whoop for this feminist classic, especially when alarming numbers of today's teenage girls reportedly accept sexually abusive boys as "normal". Still, that doesn't stop this adaptation from feeling underpowered, with a plot boiled down to a fairy tale, 2-D villains, balletically twirling violence, not enough real rage, and too many pappy songs, despite their gospel and blues roots.

Last but not least, the immersive company Punchdrunk present another of their epic installations-cum-promenade shows in a disused warehouse in Paddington. The Drowned Man: a Hollywood Fable (31 London Street, Paddington ****) is a loose reworking of Buchner's fragmentary tragedy Woyzeck, translated to 1960s LA with studio starlets, leering cowboys, and the fatal love triangle refracted, with sexual inversions.

Spread across four storeys, the sets are a labyrinth of dark menace. Wander for hours through forests and sand dunes. Snoop around mouldering caravans (one with its rumpled bed growing moss). Sidle into mad voodoo chapels; or motel rooms littered with cryptic notes, where wirelesses have been left playing and vestiges of perfume hang in the air.

I've no idea who any of the flitting characters were and, annoyingly, couldn't see the climactic murder scenes due to overcrowding. En route, however, the actor-dancers – blurring rock'n'roll with vicious wrestling – are sharply disturbing.

 

'A Season in the Congo' to 17 Aug; 'The Color Purple' to 14 Sept; 'The Drowned Man' to 31 Dec

Critic's Choice

Last chance to catch Ciarán Hinds's superlative performance as the skint chancer in Conor McPherson's The Night Alive, at London's Donmar (to 27 July). Queue for the 20 cheap tickets released each morning. Meanwhile, Maxine Peake is at the Manchester International Festival today with a solo rendition of The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley's politically charged response to the anti-poverty demonstrators and Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

 

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness