BWW Review: TREE, Young Vic
As someone who has never quite realised the appeal of going clubbing, imagine my fear as I walked into the auditorium of the Young Vic, where a central island was occupied by audience members dancing. Memories of my first night of Freshers at university sprung to mind, where I awkwardly stood in the corner of a club with a cider tightly clutched in my hands.
However, in stark contrast to such reminiscences, and following a run at the Manchester International Festival, Tree is a heart-pounding 90 minutes of history that tells the story of a young man's search into his South African heritage and, in turn, the history of that land itself.
Indeed, upon entering the theatre, audiences are greeted by director Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose dancing gives no indication of the allegations by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin that they were the original creators and developers of the play. It is not the place of this review to comment on this disputation of authorship, but regardless the piece's genesis comes from Idris Elba's album mi Mandela, which was produced following the death of the actor's father in 2013. Elba is, alongside Kwei-Armah, credited as a co-creator in the show programme.
In its current form, Tree depicts Kaelo's (Alfred Enoch) journey to learn about his father Lundi (Kurt Egyiawan) following the death of his mother. Kaelo stays with his grandmother, Elzebe (Sinéad Cusack), and is taught the torments and difficulties South Africa has gone through from Gweki (Patrice Naiambana).
Though the plot of an individual seeking their family identity might be rather typical, Kwei-Armah helms a gorgeous production. The majority of the audience are to be found standing around the central stage and, as actors expertly slink through the crowd, it is impossible to not become involved. Ushers diligently hand out signs and props for audience members to hold up, whilst others are pulled onto the stage and one lucky individual will play the brief role of property surveyor.
Numerous moments of effective staging punctuate the play, especially the creation of the titular tree. Jon Clark's lighting draws a tight line between the warm sun of the country and its blinding harshness, and the projection by Duncan McLean expands the limited space of the theatre with an efficient simplicity.
Billed as a blend of music, drama and dance, Gregory Maqoma's choreography emphasises the bodily cost paid by the country in its attempts to remain independent. Gweki asks Kaelo, "How does this land feel?". "Strange" is the response: in its depictions of social violence, never does this production allow audiences to forget how the spirits of the past live on in the present.
Enoch leads the cast as Kaelo, with a tentative determination to learn about both his family's history and that of the earth he stands on. Cusack's Elzebe likewise attempts to stand strong amidst personal and social heartbreak, but the roots of her strength are slowly disturbed by powers beyond her control. However, sly lines about her occupation of large amounts of farmland allow audiences to question the origins of her stability, which, it is emphasised, is as a result of her whiteness.
There's also strong performances from Naiambana and Egyiawan, and the dedication of the ensemble must be applauded: dancing for 20 minutes before the show has even started, their energy and passion are impressive.
As for Tree's problems, the first 30 minutes are rather clunky, due to its choppy pace and tone. Scenes transition seamlessly, however the quick change in locale from England to South Africa early on serves little effective purpose. Also, whilst the immersive nature of the production also works incredibly well, several moments where audience members near the stage held up signs during scenes of civil unrest actually made seeing the scene difficult.
Following his mother's death, Kaelo struggles to sleep. When he does, he enters a liminal space where his family's heritage impresses itself on his consciousness and calls him home. Stepping into the Young Vic theatre, it's difficult to not also be drawn to the pulsing rhythms of this production. Staged with vibrancy and colour, Tree is an evocative evening at the theatre that tells an important national story. One can only hope that audiences will listen to the music it proudly sends forth.
Photograph credit: Marc Brenner.