There are scintillating moments in A Season In The Congo when you feel Chiwetel Ejiofor, returning to the London stage for the first time since his Olivier Award-winning Othello in 2007, will utterly steal the show, so compelling is his performance as Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.
You need only glance into the actor’s eyes for the briefest of split seconds to be struck by the intense passion and genuine unrelenting belief in the Congolese people’s right to run their own country after years of Belgian rule and abuse.
The latest show at the Young Vic, which hits the audience with verve and energy from the moment they enter the auditorium, begins with a potted history and builds to a conclusion of Shakespearean proportions, finds Ejiofor at his charismatic best, a seemingly unstoppable leader of people, refusing to buckle at any cost. He mesmerises as the voice of a nation eager for freedom.
Just when you think this star of stage and screen, whose films include Children Of Men and Love Actually, is about to run away with the production, director Joe Wright, himself best known for films but making his second foray into stage work, pops up with a creative flourish to make you smile, gawp or grasp, be it a paratrooper invasion or caricatured puppet bankers talking in rhyme. Their creation, incidentally, was overseen by Wright’s sister Sarah who followed their parents, the founders of the Little Angel theatre, into puppetry.
If it is not Ejiofor or Wright catching the eye in Aimé Césaire’s tale of a country trying to find its feet amid less than helpful Western ‘assistance’ – the West certainly is not the hero in this tale – and one man’s unflinching beliefs, it’s the combination of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography and Rodaidh McDonald’s music, which blends perfectly to set scenes and alter moods, notably depicting a jolting, snatching, grabbing country descending into a writhing chaos.
Or it’s Lizzie Clachan’s grand design that dominates the entire auditorium, with café tables and chairs replacing regular seating in the pit area before the stage. Every nook and cranny of the multi-storey set is utilised to create a sprawling, ever changing sense of time and location.
Or it’s Daniel Kaluuya as Mobutu who, in contrast to Ejiofor’s steadfastness, transforms in the course of the show’s two and three quarter hours from Lumumba’s most eager and vehement supporter into the cold-hearted and stony-faced embodiment of power corrupting.
If every other facet of the production was marginally less striking, Ejiofor would undoubtedly steal the show with his electric performance. That he doesn’t speaks volumes for this riveting and inventive piece of theatre.