Young Vic Theatre, London ****
Runs: 1hr 30mins without interval
Review of perf seen Aug 6, 2019:
There are some mighty aspirations driving Tree. And, after all the controversy, it turns out to be a theatrical spectacle that only the most hard-nosed sceptic would be unable to completely resist.
The controversy, dear reader, in case you’ve forgotten related to the way two young playwrights, Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley felt the work they’d put in as original scriptwriters on the show was sidelined and over-ridden. True, the decision to step away from the project came partly from the young playwrights themselves.
But the pain it has produced as to who `owns’ the show, who are the `authors’ of Tree – which now bears the sole creative imprint of Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah – remains very real.
Creative authorship – ownership of creative ideas – is a dodgy area. Always has been. Who owns the `rights’ to an idea? Suffice it to say in this particular case that Idris claims the idea originally came from himself, inspired by the album he created `mi Mandela’ after the death of his father, and his own journeys to South Africa.
Manchester International Festival, the Young Vic and Kwei-Armah duly became his associates and collaborators. Allen-Martin and Henley are not credited as scriptwriters although Idris acknowledges them along with others in the show’s programme as contributors to Tree’s journey.
But to the show. As director, Kwei-Armah has excelled himself in terms of showmanship. This is a show that carries its heart on its sleeve. It vibrates with a rare sense of Afro-centricity.
Part club and music gig, part narrative drama, part choreographed epic, its strength lies in its visual and technical audacity, its energy and the universal theme at its core which though steeped in South African history, is one of identity, finding one’s cultural roots and healing. For that alone, one gives thanks.
But there is much else to celebrate as well as to question. The audience who enter to be greeted by a deafening wall of night-club beat and encouraged to `get in the mood’ onstage are, at all points, part of the action, as placard bearers, lantern holders (with mobiles at the fore) and more.
Performers weave in and out throughout the show’s 95 minutes. It is gloriously inclusive, ridiculously loud and poignant thanks to the central performance from Alfred as the very London-sounding Kaelo going to South Africa after the death of his mother, to lay her ashes to rest and to search out and discover the father he never knew – a `Who Do You Think Are’ scenario that carries its own natural and dramatic momentum.
For some, Tree will tell them nothing they didn’t already know about South African history, but the story divides neatly if in slightly rambling fashion into a very personal battle to win over Kaelo’s grandmother – Sinéad Cusack’s grim faced, tough as old boots Afrikaner settler, Elzebe, who has never forgiven her daughter, Cezanne, Kaelo’s mother for running away to London with her grandson – and the retelling of South Africa’s recent political history.
As the story unfolds, this allows for a series of imaginatively, if slightly over-blown staged `historical’ flashbacks via a giant cyclorama with video clips covering the Boer War, British brutality and the increasingly vicious internecine battles fought by anti-apartheid followers and South African police who, strangely, turn out to be mostly black South Africans (a curious anomaly this since South African police at the time would have been drawn mainly from White Afrikaners).
More tellingly for the particular perspective on this story is the introduction of a sense of past lives – the ancestors – bearing down on the living.
Gregory Maqoma’s choreography gives a constant physical dimension to the dead’s influence as living embodiments – something they share with aboriginal and other non-white cultures – in present lives and which the exceptional visionary playwright that was Lorraine Hansberry saw so clearly and depicted in her 1970, unfinished Les Blancs (revived National Theatre 2016).
Enoch makes a wonderfully lithe example of a young man discovering his roots through perplexing manifestations and experiences in which Patrice Naiambana as Elzebe’s gardener, Gweki, plays a crucial, sometimes humorously ironic role.
As the sister, Ofentse, he never knew, Joan Iyiola too is a powerful presence as a harbinger of revenge and the very real fight to take back land felt by so many black South Africans to have been stolen from them by the `white man’.
There is much complexity on both sides explored – especially love of the land by white Afrikaners giving their own bloody sacrifice for South Africa as much as the oppression, exploitation and murder they employed.
To the credit of Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba – and maybe Allen-Martin and Henley – you can feel the urge to find a healing of all sides in a conflict between black and white South Africans that persists to this day and in which the tree – in the sense of family legacy as well as mythological and environmental agent – becomes totemic.
There is a wonderful moment towards the end when designer Jon Bausor’s tree unfolds from the roof in all its green fretwork glory as Kaelo and Ofentse join hands around it, just as Elzebe’s daughter, Cezanne (Lucy Briggs-Owen) once did with her black South African boy friend, Lundi (Kurt Egyiawan), Kaelo’s father – a symbol of reunion, reconciliation and renewal that brings Tree to an all too comfortable emotional climax but one that in this day and age, is nonetheless welcome.
Quite an experience!
Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah
Marteins/Eugne: Christian Bradley
Cezanne: Lucy Briggs-Owen
Elzbe: Sinéad Cusack
Lundi: Kurt Egyiawan
Kaelo: Alfred Enoch
Ancestor/Ensemble: Anna-Kay Gayle
Ofentse: Joan Iyiola
Ancestor/Ensemble/Mpho: Anthony Matsena
Ancestor/Ensemble: Daniella May
Gweki: Patrice Naiambana
Ancestor/Ensemble: Mbulelo Ndabeni
DJ/Ensemble/Ben: Stefan Sinclair
Ancestor/Ensemble/Dance Captain: Andile Sotiya
Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Choreographer: Gregory Maqoma
Music Supervisor & Composer: Michael `Mikey J’ Asante
Set & Costume Designer: Jon Bausor
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Projection Designer: Duncan McLean
Casting Director: Pippa Ailion CDG
Co-Casting Director: Natalie Gallacher CDG
Associate Director: Paul Morris
Dialect Coach: Penny Dyer
Jerwood Assistant Director: Munotida Chinyanga
Boris Karloff Trainee Assistant Director: Nicole Behan
A Manchester International Festival, Young Vic and Green Door Pictures co-production. In association with Eleanor Lloyd Productions, Bob Benton for Anthology Theatre, Eilene Davidson Productions and Dawn Smalberg for Ragovoy Entertainment.
First perf of this production of Tree at the Young Vic Theatre, London, July 29, 2019. Runs to Aug 24, 2019.
World premiere at Manchester International Festival, Upper Campfield Market Hall, June 29, 2019
Review published on this site, Aug 8, 2019