Aimé Césaire’s play about the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was written only five years after his 1961 assassination. It has taken this long to receive its English-language premiere, for which the selling points have been not Césaire and Lumumba but actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in the principal role and acclaimed film director Joe Wright making his second foray into stage work.
Wright’s debut, Trelawny of the Wells a few months ago at the Donmar, showed his ease with the performance idioms of Victorian melodrama but also a tendency to take them too far into caricature. Similarly, this project demonstrates that he is well acquainted with Brechtian epic, physical theatre, agitprop and several other dramatic registers, but once again fails to fit them snugly together.
The evening contains a number of telling touches from the major to the almost throwaway. The Brechtian idea of distancing through commentary is wonderfully fulfilled by having musician Kabongo Tshisensa step forward periodically for brief griot-like orations, translated by other cast members. And a wonderfully economic emblem of the death of Lumumba’s vision of an independent, democratic Congo comes in the final minute, when Daniel Kaluuya as Joseph Mobutu replaces his peaked military cap with the leopard-skin toque that was to become Mobutu’s trademark through his 30-plus years of dictatorship. Ejiofor does not shy away from the contradictions in Césaire’s account of Lumumba, who comes across as principled and passionate yet often a crucial step behind events and finally, fatally too preoccupied with protocols of “legitimacy” (in a rhetoric familiar to me from the serial IRA splits during my Northern Irish youth).
The play serves as a sharp indictment of colonialism both old and neo-, with the Belgian imperial masters and American hegemons alike covertly frustrating Lumumba’s attempts to stave off the secession of mineral-rich Katanga province and the UN passing resolutions but failing to be resolute. Many supporting performers appear in costumes more contemporary than period, underlining that the same tensions and fragmentation afflict the DRC today. Scenes are interspersed with dance sequences (choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a co-director credit) which may symbolise the same, or may impressionistically recapitulate the dramatic action, but to be frank mostly just drag matters out to no good effect.
Lumumba certainly deserves to be remembered more widely, but also rather more coherently than in this realisation.