Review: A Season in the Congo

No one comes up smelling of roses, except Patrice Lumumba in the Young Vic’s production of A Season in the Congo, Aime Cesaire’s play about the rise and demise of Congo’s first, democratically elected leader. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a rousing performance as the Christ-like figure of Lumumba, who is ultimately sacrificed on the altar of western commercial and political interests, and the venality of his fellow Congolese politicians. Daniel Kaluuya shines as the ultimately Judas-like figure of Joseph Mobutu, whose brutal dictatorship ran in Congo for 32 years. 1960s Congo is lovingly evoked in a masterful set – and the production makes full use of the vibrant possibilities of Congo’s music, and cultural talents; the famous independence cha cha is played during the progress of those scenes in the play. In the hands of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a relatively small group of actors’ gracefully evoke a plethora of situations through dance and deft movement, from a triumphant crowd, a boisterous independence celebration, a battle and massacre, to an intimate lovers dance; Kabongo Tshisensa, who performs the role of an oral narrator in should perhaps have been used more sparingly for greater effect, but his final lament on the banality and tragedy of Lumumba’s death is heartbreakingly tender and poignant. At two and half-hours, this is a lengthy play, but the pace rarely flags, though there are precious few moments of introspective performance, which one feels may have drawn out more of the pathos of Patrice Lumumba’s situation – a young man, inexperienced, ambitious for his country, blind to his closest enemies, who was when all is said and done, a husband and a father to five children. There are some moments that evoke Lumumba, the man; not least the scenes between Ejiofor, and Joan Iyiola who gives a dignified performance as his long-suffering wife, Pauline, a cassandra-like figure, whose visions of impending doom are dismissed by Lumumba.

There’s plenty in this production to please students of Congolese history; it succeeds in placing the events of those turbulent times in their wider, historical and political context. The febrile and paranoid atmosphere of cold-war politics is accentuated by additions to Cesaire’s text, of excerpts from cold-war era cables between the soviets and the US. The brutality of the Belgians, and the empty, loquaciousness of the United Nation’s protests of neutrality are brilliantly satirized, as is the preening arrogance of Badouin II, the King of the Belgians, whose praise of his genocidal uncle Leopold II at Congo’s independence celebrations precipitated Lumumba’s famous speech denouncing the brutality of Belgian colonialism.

It’s a welcome development that even the white characters in this play about Africa, are played by black actors, with prosthetic noses signifying their difference from the black African characters; above all, Cesaire’s text radiates vibrantly, weaving deftly between hum-drum daily talk, rousing political speeches, and the lyrical laments of people at a great crossroads of history; the use of accents, which could have so easily gone wrong, is commendable, instead of the usual massacring of African accents, here, the actors have stylized their speech, giving a such suggestion of the richness of Congolese speech, in particular Joseph Mydell as Congolese president (Kasavubu) and Joan Iyiola as (Pauline Lumumba).

The denouement of the play, where Lumumba meets his end is, surprisingly, not the moment of catharsis one might expect from a play that bears such strong parallels with a passion play, but perhaps there is no better ending than the one we are given, where a brutal dictator raises himself up and fires straight at the beating heart and voice of Congo’s culture. A Season in the Congo is a must see production for anyone who wants to know more about the Congo, or simply wishes to see where the present day reality and the brutality of Congo’s post-colonial history began.

A Season in the Congo is at the Young Vic until the 24th August 2013.