Some of the most powerful political drama of the second half of the twentieth century (Athol Fugard’s, Siswe Banzi is Dead and Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon, to name but two) was written in protest against apartheid South Africa. The demise of that foul system and the 20-odd years that have passed since the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have by no means resolved all of that country’s seething injustices, not least those concerning ownership of land.
Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) is a bright but somewhat feckless young Londoner. His mother, Cezanne, has recently died. Cezanne was the daughter of a white South African farming family. Kaelo’s father, whom he never met, was a black South African, killed during the struggle against racial oppression.
Kaelo is a young man with a mission: to go to South Afica and scatter his mother’s ashes on his father’s grave. The trouble is, no one seems to know where his father is buried.
His grandmother, Elzebe (Sinéad Cusack) still owns and runs the family farm. “If you’re asking if you’re the first coloured to stay in my house,” she tells her grandson on his arrival, “you are.” Despite her estrangement from her daughter (this is the first time she and Kaelo have met), Elzebe is distraught and angry to be told of her only child’s death, months after it occurred.
“What the two of you have done is unforgiveable!” she rails at Kaelo.
After this difficult start, an uncomfortable affection begins slowly to develop between the old woman and her reluctant heir. Matters get even more complicated when Kaelo learns he has a half-sister.
The stylish, sassy Ofentse (Joan Iyiola) appears to have made a lot of money in (possibly dodgy) ‘suburban property development’. Ofentse, underwhelmed by her privileged, childlike half-brother, is part of a new generation of black South Africans with little time and less respect for Mandela’s conciliatory approach, which they see as having left too much of the apartheid status quo in place. “We want our land back, now!”
Plagued by disturbing dreams ever since his arrival, Kaelo eventually “witnesses” the truth about his father’s death, but with his grandmother and half-sister on a collision course, what peace will there be for him in this land that is his ‘inheritance’?
Enoch’s Kaelo is open and engaging, and makes a good contrast with Cusack’s flinty but principled reactionary. Iyiola’s Ofentse oozes confidence and a hint of menace – she has charisma. Kurt Egyiawan and Lucy Briggs-Owen (as Kaelo’s parents) and Patrice Naiambana (as Gweki, the old retainer who knows more than he’s letting on) provide very able support. Gregory Maqoma’s vibrant, edgy choreography and Duncan McLean’s atmospeheric projections supply visual power to the production.
This is an interval-free event, running straight through for 90 minutes. It’s a standing performance with some of the action passing through and among the audience, and a small (non-obligatory) element of participation. The show opens and closes with an invitation to dance – an invitation eagerly accepted by many. Tonight’s audience is strikingly more diverse (in terms of age and ethnicity) than the usual Manchester theatre audience. Let us hope this continues.
The pace of the production seems well-suited to a younger crowd, but the tempo also works against a deeper emotional engagement with the characters and their journeys. Notwithstanding Ofentse’s objections, Tree achieves its own version of Truth and Reconciliation (perhaps a little too glibly). For all that, Tree offers a message of hope and, right now, it’s not just modern South Africa that needs that.
(It should be noted that Tree is currently the subject of a dispute over rights between, on the one side, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah – currently listed as ‘co-creators’ – and, on the other side, Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley.)★ ★ ★ ★
Tree, a Manchester International Festival, Young Vic and Green Door Pictures co-production, is at Upper Campfield Market Hall as part of Manchester International Festival from 3 – 13 July 2019 and at the Young Vic in London from 29 July – 24 Aug 2019.