The first thing you notice is the set. You don’t so much step inside the theatre as jump into the story. It’s spectacular – multi-level, sprawling, drawing you in – particularly those in the first few seats in the stalls, which are set up as tables in a Congolese bar.
The classic play, by Aime Cesaire, charts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of post-colonial Congo. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a star turn as Lumumba, capturing his journey from trader to politician. But it’s not the Chiwetel show. He’s well supported and the cast frames the story beautifully with song, dance and puppetry.
Daniel Kaluuya’s Mobutu grows in stature as the play progresses and by the end I was struck by the juxtaposition of the two characters and how both men had changed as their friendship soured. The last time I saw Kaluuya was in Sucker Punch at the Royal Court and then, as now, I was drawn in by his subtlety. His Mobutu moved gradually from a loyal, young man to an army man whose star starts to rise as his (former) friend’s begins to fade.
It’s an energetic, sharp production that doesn’t pull any punches. The depiction of the colonial powers, business interests, Russia and the US is witty and critical – the puppets are used to devastating effect. In this way, the play captures both the immediacy of Lumumba’s situation and the external machinations that conspired against him. It’s an imaginative and dynamic portrait of a man, a country, a period of Africa’s post-colonial history and an expose of real politik.
Five tomatoes out of five.