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Review: Joe Wright directs Chiwetel Ejiofor in A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic

A_Season_in_the_Congo326In Joe Wright's production of A Season In The Congo he has approached the storytelling like an impressionist painter approaches a canvas. 

His defined brush strokes here on the Young Vic stage are a careful juxtaposition of music, dance, movement, song, dialogue and puppetry. It shouldn't work but it does and it works really well producing an evocative and atmospheric piece that is at once circus-like in its colour and vibrancy and dark in its subject matter.

The obvious treatment for Aime Cesaire's play about Congolese independence fighter Patrice Lumumba would be a straight-down-the-line political and historical drama but Wright's approach succeeds in creating something more sensuous and steeped in African culture. Music entwines the narrative utilising the lilting tunes of the likembe and tribal beats.

Old and new story telling too is entwined. Likembe player Kabongo Tshisensa in traditional dress acts as the sage voice of experience. He performs fables in Congolese as short interludes which are translated by the cast and act as warnings about what might happen. It is captivating as are Chiwetel Ejiofor's political speeches as Patrice Lumumba. He portray both a commanding and charismatic leader.

The Belgian oligarchy are represented by four huge puppets that appear like a cross between Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet show and the four faces of Queen in the Bohemian Rhapsody video while Belgian citizens are simply depicted with a white nose worn by various members of the all black cast. US and Russian interference is represented by their respective flags mounted below a chattering animal skull puppet.

At times there are strong hints of Wright's film-making background as he utilises slow motion action and freeze frame; and often mixes it up so that dance-like movement in slow motion will depict a prison beating while a speech is delivered in real-time.

Not everything quite works. There is one riot scene where the lines are delivered through a loud-hailer which just garbles the words and if you are looking for some deeper analytical exploration of what happened during Lumumba's brief stint as Prime Minister of the Congo then you aren't going to find it here. Instead it is a play of essence, flavour and colour that has an impact in its own unique way. Joe Wright has let his imagination run riot and the results are wonderful to watch.

This was a preview performance of A Season In The Congo and it runs at the Young Vic until August 17.

Recently seen:

Propeller Theatre's Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew

RSC's As You Like It

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Poly and I spent a long time trying to come up with a really good connection and the best we got was Chiwetel Ejiofor was in Love Actually with Alan Rickman and he was in Perfume, torturing Mr W's Grenouille. However, I don't think they had any scenes together in Love Actually so they may not actually met. But then I realised that I'd missed this brilliant, and definitive connection, again through Chiwetel who was in Dancing on the Edge with Matthew Goode who of course was infatuated with Mr W's Sebastain Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.