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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Season in the Congo

"He's everywhere at once — like a bluebottle fly — always buzzing." — a policeman about Patrice Lumumba
A Season in the Congo
Centre Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba (Photo: Johan Persson)
Film director Joe Wright and the Young Vic bring this immersive production of Martinician Aime Cesaire's play about the Congo in the 1960s when African colonies were struggling for independence from their colonial masters. The central figure is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Congo for a few short months until his murder, allegedly orchestrated by the CIA to prevent a political allegiance with communism. The play opens in Leopoldville in 1955.

Lizzie Clachan's remarkable and detailed set has reconfigured the Young Vic auditorium to give two playing levels and allows both a free circulation area and a colonial headquarters building to one side. With the band and song and dance this is not dry political theatre but very much alive. It is noisy and vibrant and colourful.

Some of the audience sit at tables at the front of the playing area so that the audience merges gradually with the stage. All the actors are black and they wear pink noses when they are playing the Belgian colonials or in the case of the United Nations General Secretary, Swede Dag Hammerskjold (Kurt Egyiawan), a rather silly straw blond wig. Some of the costumes had me flummoxed, why are the women wearing ballerina costumes? Are they middle class Congolese women part of the class fostered as an elite by the Belgians, their clothing symbolising impracticality?

Joe Wright's family are in the puppet theatre business and with his sister Sarah he has commissioned some huge Spitting Image type puppets to portray the Belgians bankers and power brokers. From the balcony, these Europeans speaking in rhyme encourage the secession of the mineral rich state of Katanga from the rest of the Congo and create an elite class of Africans to rule. In the early scenes, a beer called Polar is marketed by Lumumba and a political speech is disguised as an advertisement for beer to spread the word without drawing the attention of the Belgians.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an astonishingly powerful performance as Prime Minister Lumumba. In 1960 when his wife is frightened, he says "the old me is gone." While the Belgian king Badouin (Brian Bovell) looks on, the African song plays, "In the Jungle the Lion Sleeps Tonight". Lumumba makes beautiful speeches about the people treated badly, "Comrades, could they dull our thirst for life?" Joseph Mydell supports as President Kasavubu and Kabongo Tshisensa is the Likembe Player who comments in a Congolese language translated by others in the cast.

The first elections take place in May 1960 and on 23rd June Lumumba becomes prime minister. From conference to implementation this is the most rapid of any in Africa and the Congo is unprepared for independence. By July Moishe Tshombe (Brian Bovell) declares himself president of the breakaway state of Katanga with the backing of the Belgians. Lumumba asks for UN intervention and Dag Hammerskjold requests Belgium to withdraw its troops from the Congo, but the Belgian soldiers stay in Katanga. Lumumba then turns to the USSR for military aid. Lumumba's army chief of staff Joseph Mobuto (Daniel Kaluuya) seizes part of another secessionist area and tribal conflict ensues which Hammerskjold calls "genocide".

The play choreographs the civil war with killing and drums, the stage lit red with sirens sounding. In September Mobuto seizes power and Lumumba is unconstitutionally dismissed as prime minister and placed under house arrest. In this play, his wife like Calpurnia, has terrible dreams. Lumumba is offered a place in Mobuto's government but he will not compromise his ideals. He is later transferred to Katanga, beaten, tortured and shot in the presence of Tshombe and the Katanga secessionist government. In Lumumba's absence, Mobuto continues to rule for 32 years, backed by Belgium and the United States for his anti-communist stance and amasses vast personal wealth.

Aime Cesaire, as well as chronicling the shocking story of the usurping and killing of Patrice Lumumba is making predictions about the abuse of power that we have seen in the last 50 years in sub-Saharan Africa where democracy has been imposed rather than emerging through choice and development. Joe Wright is making political history accessible through the medium of theatre and Chiwetel Ejiofor's towering performance will have many researching Patrice Lumumba.

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A Season in the Congo
Written by Aime Cesaire
From a translation by Ralph Manheim
Directed by Joe Wright

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Joseph Mydell, Daniel Kaluuya, Kurt Egyiawan, Brian Bovell, Kabongo Tshisensa
With: Sandra Reid, Jan Iyiola, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Lydie Alberto, Nandi Bhebhe, Joseph Madoki, Kaspy N'Dia, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Oliver Tida Tida
Designed by Lizzie Clachan
Co-direction: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Lighting: Jon Clark
Sound: Craig Berkey
Puppet Direction: Sarah Wright
Original Compositions: Rodaidh McDonald, Richard Russell
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 24th August 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th July 2013 performance at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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