Review - Tree at the Young Vic
If you’re hoping to arrive at the Young Vic early and have a leisurely perusal of the programme pre-show at Tree, think again. As I made my way down towards the stage, all I could see was the grinning artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah throwing some shapes welcoming people to the space, as actors and audience cut up the
dancefloor stage to bone-rattling bass.
It’s the first spectacle of this show, which takes its inspiration from Idris Elba’s album mi Mandela, which he recorded after travelling to South Africa following the death of his father in 2013. At Tree’s centre is Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), a Londoner born to South African parents – his mother was white, his father black – during apartheid.
His mother has died, and he makes the pilgrimage to scatter her ashes on the grave of the father he never met. It’s a simple enough wish, but Kaelo has a lot to learn about the politics, history, tensions and race that stand in his way.
Through Gregory Maqoma’s hyper-realistic, balletic choreography set to Michael Asante’s bass-heavy electronic score, Kaelo overlooks scenes from the past, including some intense scenes portraying the scale of the violence and death in the region during that time.
Kaelo’s frustrations slowly bubble under the surface; he is pulled one way by his cold grandmother, the proud Sinead Cusack who wants nothing more than to keep her land in the family, and his half-sister who arrives to reclaim the land. But while Kaelo’s circumstances place him on the edge of an identity crisis within him, nothing will throw him off his course to find closure.
Kwei-Armah’s direction feels collaborative. The audience stands around the stage as placards are passed around to fill the space, while some are invited up to dance – or in one person’s case, play a government official. While it generates a great sense of community, it the ushers continually passing through directing the crowd can be quite distracting.
But otherwise, it is a very polished production with a natural feel. Duncan McLean’s video designs are beautifully projected on Jon Bausor’s giant wicker surround suspended above the stage, while the final tree creation fills the space wonderfully.
The show’s premiere at Manchester International Festival was overshadowed by explosive plagiarism claims from two writers - Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley – who had workshopped a version of the show previously. While it’s easy to get caught up in controversy – and discussions we should be having – you can only review what’s in front of you on stage.
And it’s an enticing, celebratory piece of gig theatre with a huge energy. In their programme notes (which I managed to read afterwards), Kwei-Armah and Elba both speak about the impact of losing a parent, which is the relatable thread through this piece, which has the ability to speak to anyone and everyone.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner