‘A Season in the Congo’ at the Young Vic

I booked the tickets for the current production of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic months ago, before they even knew what the auditorium layout was going to be, when you couldn’t see where you would be sitting and all you could say was the price you were prepared to pay.  I booked it knowing nothing about the play and solely on the strength of the pre publicity that the lead would be taken by Chiwetel Ejiofer.

I’ve been following his career since I had a front row seat to see him and Bill Nighy in Blue Orange at the National Theatre, (online research has revealed that this must have been in 2000), and although he has performed on the stage to much acclaim since, this was my first opportunity to see him again.

So it didn’t really matter what the play was about; but inevitably on my way there, I did start to interrogate myself on the degree of my ignorance.  What I know about the Congo is limited to the horrific news reports of its recent bloody history, and to my reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  

About Patrice Lumumba I knew even less.  Probably the first time I’d heard his name was when I was newly arrived in Moscow in the 1990s.  My Russian teacher’s main employment was as a lecturer at Moscow’s Lumumba People’s Friendship University.  When he first told me the name of the institution, despite its incongruous sound, I thought Lumumba was just another Russian word I’d never heard before; and so he had to explain to me that it was the name of an post independence African leader undone by Western capitalist colonial  interference (and thereby confirming his belief in the general ignorance of those who had not benefited from a Russian education.)

I think it would be fair to say that my understanding of Lumumba’s role and his death having seen the play is only a little further forward: he was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo after it gained independence from Belgium, and he was undone by colonial interference, leaving the way open for Mobutu, a figure more acceptable to ‘the west’, to take over.

The play itself, with all its agitprop creakiness, is just a framework around which has been woven a tremendous theatrical experience.  The cast mingle in the audience before the play kicks off, chatting and suggesting the purchase of beer from the stall onstage; and many of the seats are plastic chairs arranged around small tables in a sunken area in the middle of the auditorium.  There is music both live and recorded and astonishing dancing and movement.  The cast of a dozen or so seem like many more and they transform themselves from nightclub dancers to bloody fighters seamlessly while we watch them pulse and move onstage.

There is puppetry, giant papier mache heads represent the Belgian vested interests undermining independence, and vultures arrive to pick over the carcasses at the end of protests.  The all black casts put on plastic piggy white noses to signify when they are portraying white characters and there are some excellent performances.

It is, however, Chiwetel Ejiofor who carries the evening.  It is the depth and nuance that he gives to his character that gives the play heart; he is an idealist, keen to forge a united country, but he is blind to the betrayals of his associates and fails to predict the impact of the international interference.  Betrayed by his allies, there is an inevitability to his death.  He is up against too many malign forces to be able to fight them all and maintain his ideals.  It was a vocally rich and physically powerful performance, and even though I did feel there were some longueurs in the evening, to see him act was worth the price of admission any day.

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  1. Lucky you – and it sounds like a tremendous night in the theatre. 🙂


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