Tree – a moving tale of South Africa today.
Tree, recently opened at the Young Vic in London, is a 90-minute journey into South Africa’s violent past told through a family story of heartbreak and loss. Through the medium of acting, dance and music, it is a pulsating, joyous production yet lays bare the gaping wounds that remain in post-apartheid South Africa today.
Tree works well as a family story, slowly unravelling the terrible truths of the past. A young man born into loss has suffered another terrible bereavement – that of his mother. He travels back to South Africa, the land of her birth, in search of his father whom he never knew.
When he arrives in South Africa, everyone asks him the same question: why are you here? He thinks that he has a simple mission – to find his family members. He comes to realise that while he is but a visitor, his family legacy runs deep and touches on one of the fundamental questions facing South Africa today – the ownership of the land.
Some younger South Africans, ‘born-frees’ who were born post-Apartheid, feel that Mandela sold out their generation who continue to experience economic hardship and inequality. Some support the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) – a political party in South Africa that supports the redistribution of land, ‘Expropriation without Compensation’. This is very much in the forefront of current South African politics and the debate is reflected in another play on in London at the moment – in Barber Shop Chronicles on at the Roundhouse.
While audience members who are not South African – or do not follow its politics closely – may not entirely grasp the nuance of the politics unfolding on stage – the EFF holds a political rally and their pamphlets fall from the sky – everyone feels the raw rage and anger of those caught between the heroic generation who gave their lives for the struggle to free South Africa and the current system of corrupt government and the resultant seething frustration that not nearly enough has changed.
The slogan ‘The Personal is Political’ is never truer than in a play such as Tree where both are intertwined much like the roots of the tree in the play. The script cleverly reveals how every character’s personal story is twisted and shaped by the brutality of Apartheid and the violence of the oppression and resistance.
The play opens with the audience and actors dancing on stage – much like a very happy nightclub along with a DJ and strobe lighting. I think some of the audience might have been happy to dance the night away.
The atmosphere became more serious once the drama is underway. The action moved swiftly throughout with strong physical theatre, very effective choreography particularly in the dream sequences and the brutal scenes of violent resistance and police response.
All the actors had a strong presence and the unspoken pain of the main characters was keenly observed. Alfred Enoch was excellent in the role of Kaelo who is confused, hurt and lost all before he leaves London to visit his grandmother on a farm in South Africa. He is guided on his way by the spirits of his ancestors until he unearths the truth about unspeakable atrocities that took place and have been literally buried. Patrice Naiambana was moving as Gkweki, at times putting in a wonderful comic turn but at others leading Kaelo to understand his family’s history. At points, Naiambana’s expression of pain and grief were hard to witness.
Joan Iyiola was a wonderfully imperious Ofentse who has poured her grief and rage into support for the EFF and whose loss is as great as Kaelo whom she disdains as a privileged London man whose mother could ‘leave the shit storm she created’ while the other half his family had to endure and fight for freedom.
Sinéad Cusack gave a strong and convincing performance of a woman hardened by the losses, violence and ever-present threats of living on a farm whose ownership is one of the most politically volatile questions in South Africa’s history.
The use of the ancestors was well executed not only in their role as a Greek chorus but also playing the part of linking the living with the dead. ‘Sometimes the dead need you to find them’ Gweki advises.
The staging was striking. The stage was shaped like a tree and its surface resembled a trunk cut on the horizontal. The theme of the tree develops throughout the drama until the final scene which is both beautiful and moving. The audience mostly stands around the stage, taking various parts at points. There is some seating upstairs if required. I was not entirely convinced of the need for the audience to stand for 90 minutes – was I the only one with a sore back by the end? – but it did add a certain immediacy and engagement with audience members waving placards at points, becoming part of the action.
Tree is co-created by Idris Elba who travelled to South Africa after playing Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. He released an album called mi Mandela dedicated to his late father. The music provided a launch point for the development of Tree which was co-created by Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the director of Tree as well as Artistic Director of the Young Vic.
The play evokes powerful emotions, rage, anger, desire for retribution, the need for reconciliation. Was there a dry eye in the house by the end of the play? I had in mind a few of the most poignant words ever penned about South Africa, the name of Alan Paton’s 1948 novel, ‘Cry the beloved country’.
Tree is showing at the Young Vic until 24 August
66 The Cut,
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