A Season in the Congo (Young Vic, London) – Carole Woddis.

The heart of darkness.  Joseph Conrad’s phrase has so often been churned out to describe the troubles of Africa.  But as the Young Vic’s latest, A Season in the Congo directed by film director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice) demonstrates so vividly and with such bravura exuberance, western interference has much to account for in what has happened in the past century.

Many plays have described the effect of colonialism on African life but Wright’s vision of Martinique poet, politician and playwright, Aimé Césaire’s play evokes the clash of cultures like no other I can remember with dynamic vigour and colour.

Césaire’s drama is a tragedy of betrayal and idealism.  It tells the tragic story of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first Prime Minister who ultimately fell at the hands of his rival, Mobuto but whose downfall could as much be laid at the door of American CIA and Soviet involvement as any African tribal emnity.

Fascinatingly and as played in a colossus of a performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, with great skill, energy and beauty, Lumumba, initially a beer seller, a man of the people, emerges as part visionary but also, fatally, a romantic incapable of compromise – a man of principle whose passion for creating a unified democratic Congo, free of Belgian influence, was betrayed not least by the UN’s then Secretary General, the esteemed Dag Hammarskjöld.

Thus we see western real-politik in 1960 Congo, quite as much as now in 2013 Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia et al, ply its self-interested way, distorting outcomes, perverting lives.

To bring this tragedy to life, Wright has employed a variety of theatrical devices, from Brechtian placarding to carnivalesque song, dance and pageant.  Sidi Larbi Cherkaouí, choreographer and co-director also literally fills the stage with a torrent of pounding feet and physicalised narrative.

Wright too is not linked to Little Angel puppet founders, Lyndie and John Wright for nothing.  Giant puppet heads, satirical and grotesque, rightly represent Congo’s manipulating, behind the scenes political masters in Brussels.

And in keeping with the production’s integrity, the extraordinary Young Vic cast of musicians and dancers hail from the four corners of French speaking Africa.

True to its roots, this is not a production that fits easily into western theatrical conventions.  But if you like your theatre big, brash, with the smell of burnt earth and drinking parlours practically pouring off the walls, this is the place for you, no longer The Cut in London SE1, but downtown Kinshasa, in the heart of Congo.

A Season in the Congo is at The Young Vic to Aug 17; see www.youngvic.org.

Carole Woddis © 2013.