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.
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.