By David Keyworth
When I saw Tree advertised in the Manchester International Festival (MIF) programme, my attention was caught by the collective talent involved in the project. At the same time, however, I was wary that a play about South Africa’s apartheid history might be a gruelling watch. It was a revelation, then, to enter Castlefield’s Victorian Upper Campfield Market Hall to the sight of red and green strobe lights and a young (in theatre terms) audience dancing and getting drinks.
What unfolds employs the traditional narrative device of an explorer in an unfamiliar land, but, less traditionally, the dialogue is inter-cut with music and dance (choreographed by Gregory Maqoma). At one point, the stage becomes a ring of fire, literally. There is also a digital screen which encircles the performers and is used both for visual effect and to convey information in images, rather than in clunky exposition about what’s happening at every juncture.
Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) leaves London – the home of his exiled and recently deceased mother. He is on a mission to scatter her ashes and tell his grandmother (Sinéad Cusack) the sad news. He also wants to learn more about his father and find his half-sister, Ofentse.
It soon becomes apparent that Kaelo cannot dig into his own past without uncovering the half- buried traumas of South Africa’s past. Sinéad Cusack (a member of the Irish acting dynasty) has the gravitas to convince as Kaelo’s white grandmother, carrying the weight of tragedy and guilt on her shoulders. Meanwhile, Ofentse, played by Joan Iyiola, is a volatile cauldron of energy which oscillates between lightness and destruction, and Enoch conveys the emotion of Kaelo’s journey without overacting. There are also some touching and amusing scenes between him and Patrice Naiambana as Gweki.
Not all the action takes place on the stage, however. The actors frequently weave into the audience, most of whom are standing. This may seem unusual, until you remember that Shakespeare’s plays were performed before a large number of so-called groundlings – and, for that matter, if Greek dramatists such as Sophocles had access to amplified sound, they would no doubt have used it, too. If you go to see Tree, you may even find yourself ushered onto the stage by one of the actors.
Before the action began, I took the opportunity to say hello to BBC arts editor Will Gompetz. He said that he was particularly interested to see how Tree would play with theatrical form.
Tree is a debut collaboration for Idris Elba and director Kwame Kwei-Armah. One of the seeds of the project was Idris Elba’s Mi Mandela. The actor made the 2014 album after playing Mandela in the film Long Walk to Freedom.
Last week, Elba responded on Twitter to allegations that he and Kwame Kwei-Armah had not given enough credit to two other writers, who are only acknowledged in the programme by Elba as people who “worked with me along the way.” Ultimately, however, such spats did not mar the evening’s enjoyment. The vibrant tempo only sags slightly in the final third, where there is more exposition than in previous acts.
Whatever the make-up of the creative soil Tree grew from, it is a compelling work which reminds us that the present day is rooted deeply in the past.