A review of Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo

Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba. Photo:Young Vic

Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba. Photo:Young Vic

‘You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once,’ Science fiction writer, Robert A Heinlein, once wrote. And the Young Vic’s production of A Season in the  Congo, brings this sage expression sharply to mind.

While many of the wars fought by Africans have been wars of independence – fought to root out acquisitive colonialists who had hitherto carved up the continent for its oil, its gold, its diamonds, its resources, its land, its humans – arguably none of Africa’s conflicts post-independence has been devoid of the machinations of foreign interests. Had the pan-African pro-independence movements of the 1950s and 60s foreseen the cost of hard-won liberty, perhaps Africa would even now be contentedly subject to the exploitation of the West rather than forever divided in freedom.

Joe Wright’s wonderful adaptation of the 1966 play by Aimé Césaire, chronicling the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first elected Prime Minister is, beyond artistic achievement, an indictment of colonialist and neo-colonialist powers.

When we first encounter Patrice Lumumba, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the year is 1955, Congo is still a Belgian colony and he is still a beer salesman, glibly encouraging his audience to put aside their ethnic rivalries and ‘drink to Congo’.

In 1960, when we next meet Lumumba, he has set up a political party – Mouvement National Congolais – been jailed, released and elected prime minister.

The rise of Lumumba, we realise, hasn’t happened in spite of foreign interests but rather because of it. At a conference of Belgian investors, depicted by giant puppet heads speaking in rhyming couplets – ‘To be president is great, prime minister fine; but hold out dollars and they’ll form a line’ – it is decided that elevating Lumumba might better serve their interests than imprisoning him. ‘Bring him to Brussels’, they agree.

Newly elected Lumumba is no willing puppet, however. On the day of the Congolese handover by the Belgian King, he forcefully interrupts proceedings to rail at the former colonialists, ‘welcome Congo — child of our sleepless nights and struggles’. This first faux pas is immediately followed by several others as Lumumba falteringly attempts to find his feet.

Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba who, eager to bring change to Congo, makes one audacious decision after another — he sacks Belgian officers from the army, appoints Maurice Mpolo as Chief of Staff then quickly displaces him for his disgruntled friend and crowd favourite, Joseph Mobutu and eventually turns to Russia at the height of Katanga’s insurgency to the alarm of the USA. ‘Congo is not a country, it’s a curiosity’ marvel foreign investors in Belgium and I daresay the audience shared their sentiment…

Continue reading my review on Wasafiri

A Season in the Congo continues until August 24 at the Young Vic, London. Book tickets here

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