Have you ever (literally, actually) hugged a tree? Like, really put your arms round one, dodging beetles and stray branchlets, willing its rough unyielding bark to melt into your softer flesh? Waited for that spark of answering warmth? Could be a long wait. Trees have better things to do than reciprocate your unsolicited gestures of affection; they’re too busy inhaling the carbon dioxide you wastefully spew out with every breath, as they communicate ancient inscrutable wisdom through their interlinked networks of roots, and hold the soil together as manmade global heating slowly dries it out into dusty deserts.
In a Guardian interview in the run-up to Tree, Idris Elba made a lot of his tree-hugging habit. Apparently he’s been doing it for years, and it’s something that inspired him and Young Vic Kwame Kwei-Armah to turn his 2017 concept album Mi Mandela into a branchy exploration of unity. After Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin’s viral Medium post, where they talk about being moved off the project, that story feels a little less compelling.
It’s hard to watch Tree without thinking about that context, and about the backlash, and about the uneasy power dynamics it displayed; ones where female artists are often sidelined, but there are also plenty of voices who are too ready to undermine prominent black artists. And as I thumbed through the show’s programme, MIF artistic director John McGrath’s statement in the programme feels revealing; “When I started as MIF’s Artistic Director in 2015, involving Idris Elba was one of my top ambitions.” He goes on to cite the actor’s “capacity to connect across so many populations” and “legendary charisma”. The idea of turning his Mi Mandela album into a piece of theatre had long been in the works, but “with an ever-busier film schedule, it hadn’t moved forward as quickly as hoped”. Then, MIF came on board to produce the project and get things moving; “Since then, so many brilliant collaborators have come on board to bring Tree to life”.
It’s worth noting that calling Mi Mandela ‘his’ album is potentially misleading: a 2014 Guardian article explains that Elba acted as “worked as curator and executive producer”, and he describes his role as “bring[ing] musicians together with some concepts, ideas and musical inspiration”. This is all a massively long preamble to my review, but it’s here because it suggests something about the distinct flavour of the show. It explains why despite its elephantine gestation period, Tree feels underpowered and disparate. Elba’s role is one that you don’t often get in theatre – that his celebrity allows him to gather people together, to become an expansive canopy under which new projects can grow, but it also means that he’s short on the time needed to see that everything slots into place.
Back to actual trees. The title’s leafy elongated perennial (how’s that for a second mention?) shelters a family secret with roots that stretch back to the days of apartheid. Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) is a 30-year-old man who is visiting his white maternal grandmother Elzebe (Sinéad Cusack) in South Africa. He’s feeling rootless and lost. He was raised by Elzebe’s estranged daughter in London, but after her death he wants to discover the truth about who his black father was. Gradually, he uncovers apartheid’s impact on his family history, prodding Elzebe’s gardener for stories. A painful but awkwardly paced string of revelations about the painful circumstances surrounding his parents’ relationship follows; there’s a blunt inevitability to Kwei-Armah’s storytelling, and Kaelo lacks agency. He feels much younger than his apparent 30 years (in Henley and Allen-Martin’s version, he was a teenager).
His story unfolds in a diffuse, gig-theatre style production. The ensemble’s opening onstage dance party is brilliant; they’re committed, and the afrobeat soundtrack feels expansive and welcoming. Despite their best efforts, this energy is lost later, as the standing audience begins to slump into the sombre story of the search for Kaelo’s father’s grave. The production’s spectacular approach feels at odds with this quiet story. Jon Bausor’s design surrounds the audience with an elegant curve of screens that fill with beautiful, sometimes overpowering nature-inspired projections as Kaelo discovers the land that means so much to his grandmother. There’s audience participation that’s elaborate and distracting at once; the crowd gets anti-apartheid banners to wave and are prompted to turn on their mobile phone torches on as he discovers the lives lost during anti-government struggles. And the loose magical-realism feel to the narrative is brought out in slightly fumbled elements of circus; Kaelo is winched up on ropes so that he hovers awkwardly over the flashback scenes where his parents meet, and start a forbidden relationship.
There’s something a little too shiny, a little too familiar to this vision of a South Africa whose stories have often been told in the same broad emotive strokes. Elzebe’s husband’s time in the military is rendered by him marching in front of an old-timey backdrop. Traditional dance is used as the language of dreams. There are recreations of protests that older UK audiences will remember from the news. There are moments that subvert and update this historic narrative of apartheid and protest, and most come from the character of Kaelo’s half-sister, who critiques Mandela’s softly-softly approach and demands change now in a still-unjust country. Joan Iyiola’s performance is sparky, even if it’s still not clear how she makes the journey from deeply resenting Kaelo as a privileged, weirdly clueless outsider to suddenly welcoming him into the fold in the show’s triumphant, spectacular final scene.
Tree feels like a set of interesting ingredients that could have come together in a better form. I saw it in Manchester’s grand market hall; its transfer to the Young Vic might lend it some of the intimacy it lacks here. In a smaller, busier space, that party atmosphere could ignite, especially in one that feels as exciting as the Young Vic does right now, as it poises itself to put the focus on newer voices like Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) or Lauren Yee (In a Word). But what lingers, for me, is a sense of what happens when much-loved famous personalities get involved in projects. Charisma and star power makes things possible, gives audiences that impetus to get through the door. But it also makes fair collaboration harder. MIF has put its focus on attracting stars; like Yoko Ono, who presided over the opening ceremony via video link. Maybe the rewards are richer when you invest in artists who have the time and energy to love their audiences back.
Tree premiered at Manchester International Festival. It plays at Young Vic Theatre until 24th August. More info and tickets here.