Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Uhuru Lumumba! A Season in the Congo review

Catherine Hoskyns reviews A Season in the Congo at London's Young Vic

July 23, 2013
4 min read

It is a surprise when at the end of this production only ten – or is it twelve? – actors line up for the curtain call. For they have created such a lively and dense scenario that one would have thought many more were involved. But each of the actors, all of them black, plays several parts, sometimes donning masks or, if playing white characters, putting on a white nose shield, which has the effect both of downplaying the power of whiteness and making it slightly comic.

But there is nothing comic about the white power displayed in this production. For this is the story of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo (now DRC) who was kidnapped and assassinated in 1961, with the complicity if not worse of the major Western powers and the United Nations. The Congo is rich in minerals; most of them located in Katanga (now Shaba), its southernmost province, which the former colonial power Belgium hoped to keep under their control even when the country was declared independent. Lumumba’s ‘fault’ was that he claimed these resources for the people of the Congo and tried to mobilise the Congolese to demand a real independence (uhuru) rather than a compromised sovereignty (dipenda). He couldn’t be bought off so he had to be killed.

Aimé Césaire, the Martinique poet who wrote the original play in 1966, is said to have been haunted by the Lumumba story and what it meant for Africa. Joe Wright, who directs this production, follows the essence of Césaire’s text but amends it freely to make the plot clearer or achieve dramatic effect. This is helped by the clever set, designed as the forecourt of an anonymous but rather grand building which can in turn become a bar, a government office or an assembly room. Above are balconies for more intimate encounters or when height and distance are required. From here, for example, puppets representing a slew of bankers comment and scheme.

Atmosphere

The story is shot through with music, dance and song and an authentic Congolese atmosphere is created in the various bars and venues on the main set. Here Lumumba casually invests his friend Mobutu as commander in chief of the army. This is the Mobutu who first deposed Lumumba and then ended up as a dictator, despoiling the country of its riches and impoverishing its people for thirty years. Western nations did nothing to check the abuse.

Most striking, however, of the set pieces is the final scene when, in a setting reminiscent of the Christian ritual of the last supper, those complicit in the murder sit at the back of a trestle table along which a tortured Lumumba is rolled by his jailors. Ordered to beg for his life, he refuses, saying ‘I die my life and that’s enough for me.’ (Recent research suggests that Lumumba was killed not by Africans but by Belgian soldiers in a secret location. However, Wright follows the Césaire original in having Lumumba bayonetted by Godefroid Munongo, the Katangan minister of the interior.)

This is ensemble acting at its best and it is invidious to mention names. However, the Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Lumumba, who is on stage for most of the two hours and 50 minutes the play runs, creates a compelling central character around which all the rest revolves.

The audience at the preview session I attended was young and diverse, testifying to the on-going resonance of the Lumumba story. Africa’s continuing lack of control over its own resources, and the ruthless removal or corruption of anyone who opposes this or suggests a different way, is a story as relevant today as it was in the sixties.

Until 24 August at Young Vic, box office 020 7922 2922.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee


37