Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Tree at the Young Vic is creatively near-perfect, dramatically well-structured and functionally somewhat annoying – but not to be missed.
If you’re fortunate enough to get tickets – and please do try! – you are likely to be amongst the 320 groundlings cast as witnesses, worshipers and kettled protesters who will stand on tightly-packed terraces for the duration of the play’s 90-minutes. Unlike other immersive multi-media spectacles such as David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s 2013 modern opera Here Lies Love for New York’s Public Theatre, audience members do not wander the space or even pivot positions. The Young Vic’s patrons are fixed in static vertical poses with as much personal space as the Northern Line at rush hour. As most of the dramatic action takes place on the raised thrust stage in the middle of the space, it is not entirely clear if the prolonged and somewhat claustrophobic standing is truly essential to the production or the experience of spectators. Despite this discomfort, the sights, sounds and movement of this piece will excite and entrance you. You will be glad you came but your feet will hurt. Wear trainers and use a backpack (or consider trying for seats in the balcony). Perhaps the experiential conventions of a festival production (first mounted earlier this year at the Manchester International Festival within a space of more than double the Young Vic’s capacity) better conform to a rave/carnival happening. Somehow the Young Vic can’t quite shake off its powerful mantle as a receptive theatre space. It’s true that the audience is included in the story-telling but, in the main, Tree is still a four-walled drama that uses the full auditorium space as its stage – doing so gorgeously thanks to Gregory Maqoma’s choreography, Michael ‘Mike J’ Asante’s music and Duncan Mc Lean’s projections.
Tree’s story moves with heavy and heady notes of South Africa’s ancestral ghosts and contemporary demons. Propelled by bi-racial Londoner Kaelo ‘s (Alfred Enoch) quest to return his late mother’s ashes to the family farm of his white grandmother, Elzebe (Sinead Cusack), he embarks on a homecoming to a land he’s never visited but whose significance he’s yet to appreciate. This homecoming from the nation’s former coloniser to the land of his diverse and conflicted ancestors is a coming-of-age for Kaelo. Any romantic and simplistic notions about South Africa that the audience may have held are also disabused; Tree is a coming-of-age for everyone. The piece offers with this maturity not bitterness but serenity and hope – Elba and Kwei-Armah’s work is uplifting and credible.
Kwei-Armah’s script isn’t shy about borrowing the best dramatic devices from Sophocles (Antigone) and Chekov (The Cherry Orchard) and that’s just fine. The plot is taut and driving with delicious complication to Kaelo’s notions of family and heroism introduced by half-sister Ofentse (delivered powerfully by multi-talented Joan Iyiola) as she and Kaelo seek to uncover how their black father, a farm-servant of Kaelo’s grandmother, died and where his remains are. The tragic love story of Kaelo’s parents, Cezanne (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and Lundi (Kurt Egyiawan) is revealed to Kaelo as he literally hangs from a thread overhead and we are reminded of how often we all can disassociate from humanity for cultural norms, social survival or tribal conditioning.
The play concludes not only with a tragic secret exposed but with the construction of an installation that at first appears the stuff of division but reveals itself as a unifying celebration of continual renewal, even from the most contaminated of roots. Imagistic and multi-sensational with a soundtrack pitched soul-touching perfect, the effect is layered, intriguing and elevating. Transcendent and celebratory, Tree works and is worth it.
Review by Mary Beer
Created by Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, this new collaboration is an electrifying blend of drama, music and dance which follows one man’s journey into the heart and soul of contemporary South Africa – with the audience at the centre of the action.
Directed by Kwei-Armah, with music inspired by Elba’s album Mi Mandela, Tree is an exhilarating show about identity, family and belonging, seen through the eyes of one man on the toughest journey of his life.
A Manchester International Festival, Young Vic and Green Door Pictures co-production.
In association with Eleanor Lloyd Productions, Bob Benton for Anthology Theatre, Eilene Davidson and Dawn Smalberg for Ragovoy Entertainment.
Created by Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah
Main House, Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London, SE1 8LZ
29th July – 24th August 2019