The opening beats of this dynamic production are enough to entice even the most fiercely reserved, out of their seats and onto the stage. The seductive sound is a perfect prelude to a production seeps into every page of Aimee Cesaire’s political play about the rapid rise and equally sharp fall of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
Joe Wright (Director of Atonement and Anna Karenina) directs the magnetic Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba; a staunch believer in a country free from the ties of imperialism and colonial power. Set between 1959 and 1961, it marks a defining moment in Congo’s history; a moment when the country slid across political planes and a visionary paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.
Caught between Belgium’s colonial influence, Soviet and American imperialism, and the threat of secession from Katanga, Lumumba found himself entangled in a stifling power struggle, as he attempted to make his calling to create an independent Congo, a reality.
Admittedly, there’s a lot to digest here. Amongst the political power struggle, there’s a string of musical numbers, interspersed with the words of a voluble elder, who brings a knowing lyricism to the play. But Wright’s production also spins an unforgiving touch of modernity into the production. The Belgian government is presented as a group of bankers, who appear as rather unattractive puppets. They speak in rhyming couplets about their plans to create an elite class in the Congo, which they deem a “curiosity, not a country”.
Ejiofor delivers with absorbing conviction, buffeted by a cast that faithfully supports him as he navigates through this political firestorm. To even greater effect, he has the haunting quality of a tragic hero. He’s the inspiring orator who ignites a hunger for independence, but then cuts an eerily lonely figure when he fails.
An intelligent piece that’s brimming with content, A Season in the Congo tracks the demise of a man across a chequered platform; a man who bravely declared: “there was a taboo that needed breaking and I broke it.”
A Season in the Congo, Young Vic Theatre