Sometimes a writer finishes a play and it’s up on the London stage within a couple of weeks; other times a play goes through fifty re-writes, or it tours the provinces, before it gets an airing. A Season in the Congo had to wait 47 years for its London premier. And it still feels rushed.
The play deals with the independence of the Congo from Belgian colonial rule, focusing on the life of the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and his brief and ill-fated time in office. Beginning in the late ‘50s, when Lumumba was a brewery sales manager, the play tracks his life from his co-founding of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), through the hand-over talks he attends in Brussels in 1959, to the incredibly turbulent year of 1960, when the Congo gains its independence and, thanks to tribal infighting, Western self-interest and the cynical remnants of colonialism, it pulls itself apart.
It’s a damning and disheartening period in history, and it’s a story that needs to be told. But this isn’t the play to do the telling.
And that’s not to say that the production isn’t any good. The cast, led by Ejiofor, is uniformly excellent, the song and dance sequences that are cut into the action are evocatively choreographed and some of the stagecraft ideas – the looming animatronic vultures and the overhead dropping of hundreds of toy paratroopers – give the evening an aesthetic that is somehow charming, exciting, funny and poignant all at once. It’s just that the text, the words as spoken, seem to belong to a completely different play.
Césaire’s script – or the translation of it – is a stark and bleak one. It’s polemical and poetic in the way that Federico Garcia Lorca is, but it’s too zealous, too characterized by extremes. Despite what you’d think, and how the play bills itself, there’s no politics in it. No actual discussion of policy or practicality or any procedural nuance exist anywhere in the text. So much so that if you were to feed the script into a Wordle diagram, then in 72-point type it would say ‘Black’, ‘White’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Chains’, and nowhere would it say ’conciliatory meeting’, ‘consultation’ or ‘domestic spending plan’.
There are good scenes, certainly. One spectacularly good one comes in the second half where the deposed Lumumba gives a touching speech to president Kasavubu (Joseph Mydell) about how personally he feels the pain the nations of Africa have suffered as a result of colonial and racial oppression. He holds out his hand, using its shape as the map of the continent, which when you think about it, it is. Kind of.
There are other good scenes too, but what strikes you, taking the piece as a whole, is the complete lack of any structural rhythm. The play is simply a series of chronological episodes, each played in the same high gear, with people constantly bellowing out the same platitudes over and over again. There’s no progression, no – it pains me to say it – ‘growth’.
Césaire is clearly trying to teach us the history of the Congo with this play. There is a ‘lest we forget’ didacticism about the whole thing which, though may be admirable and well-intentioned, forgets to tell us anything about the people involved. We are shown the events which lead up to the Congo Crisis, and who the different parties are, but who Patrice Lumumba actually was or what he was like I am none the wiser. We see snapshots scenes of him at home with his wife, Pauline (Joan Iyiola), but these are so bland and predictable they might have been lifted from any B-movie biopic ever made – some driven figure is too busy being the revolutionary politician or genius musician or dedicated sport star to be a husband to his wife and father to his children – I’ve seen it 200 times. Why is Lumumba willing to subject his countrymen, his friends and his family, to the indignity of war? How does he justify it? That, I have no idea.
And yet A Season in the Congo is not a complete failure, far from it. Both Lizzie Clachan’s set and the stagecraft are excellent, and the perfectly pitched performances tell a complex and conflicting story deftly and fairly, but where the play needs to be exact it is vague, where it needs to coax and entice it rampages, and where it needs to clarify it obscures. A history lesson, I’m afraid to say, somewhat uneven and unengaging.