Creators: Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah
Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
An umbrella of questionable ethics has become Tree’s canopy in the lead up to the opening of one of Manchester International Festival’s flagship productions. A high-profile disagreement between creatives and the role they should or should not be credited with has pushed this production into the spotlight and has created its own story behind that told onstage. Leaving this aside Tree is a bold theatrical event that only something like MIF, with its vast productions resources, can commission.
The festival’s use of ‘non-theatrical’ spaces is not new. Indeed, Upper Campfield Market was the temporary home to The Royal Exchange twenty years ago as well as previously staging MIF productions. This time the creative team have transformed the space into something betwixt theatre and a club. A DJ encourages the audience up to dance before the show begins onto a raised platform come catwalk runway that later acts as the stage. And when the production starts it plays in thrust, traverse and promenade – the audience an essential and integral part of the living tree of this performance.
British born Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) is going to South Africa. The reason is unclear. He feels it important to visit the land of his heritage. Twenty-first century South Africa, on the surface, may be very different land to where his parents fell in love back in 1985, but attitudes and racial tension is like a grass fire – smouldering under the surface despite its visible extinction. “What about your white side?” asks Elzebe (Sinead Cusack), his white colonial grandmother. “That doesn’t matter” he replies. “Then you shouldn’t have come to South Africa” is her black and white retort. Kaelo is on a journey and microcosm mirrors macrocosm as Tree digs at the soil covering identity, belonging, race and land. “South Africa is cold” he comments. It’s perhaps not the romanticised version he had imagined.
Performers, stage management and stewards gently position audience in and out of the action as the line being performer and audience are intentionally blurred. The organic nature of the proceedings allow the audience to bleed onto the stage as a crowd, hold up anti-apartheid banners, or even make a small cameo appearance with the cast. The club atmosphere props up the high energy physical sequences gloriously choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. In one flashback sequence Kaelo floats above the action, suspended, witnessing the brutality and violence of apartheid – black activists, like his father, against the power of the white landowners backed by the regime. The production cleverly mixes styles and is in constant flux between naturalism and stylisation in its storytelling: the diversity of its narration as diverse as the audience it has attracted.
As a spectacle, it feels sumptuous yet simple. The bare wooden raised playing space is bathed brightly by Jon Clark in yellow and warm earth tones. Duncan McLean’s projection is spectacular. An enormous circular wicker structure is lit by ever-changing projection suggesting location from airport to village to big city. In the main, the design is sparse and clean with exception of the finale, triumphantly beautiful yet simple in design and too good to spoil in a review.
The piece loses a little narrative drive at the hour mark as we learn more about South Africa’s troubled past. However, it doesn’t stray for long as we begin to learn more about Kaelo’s real reason for journeying to a different continent and culture. Enoch, as the lost explorer, clings to his recently deceased mother’s ashes like a security blanket, breaking down in desperation as they get spilt into the earth. Sinead Cusack is wonderful as the matriarch – clinging to the old attitudes yet providing the link between past and future, between forgiveness and retribution. The story becomes much more fleshed out as we flashback over thirty years and see Kaelo’s wealthy, white and privileged mother as a girl, Cezanne (Lucy Briggs-Owen), and her illicit affair with black worker and activist Lundi (Kurt Egyiwan).
Tree has much beauty contained within its ninety-minute running time. Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah have successfully thrown an enormous amount of creative verve into this production. They want to tackle big issues: love, loss; grief; individuality; a sense of homeland; growth and nurture to name just a few. As a metaphor for all these things the tree seems to perfectly encapsulate all of these themes as well as exploring South Africa’s troubled past and modern day cultural attitudes. And when the final, ephemeral blowing of ashes into the air is as beautiful as anything else seen on the stage it is met with the final line: “We should all have a fuck off rave” … and we do.
Runs until 21 July 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner
[Editors note: While the authorship of Tree is in dispute and continues to be disputed from both sides, we would like to point our readers to Burn Bright – an organisation set up by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin, two female creatives who are at the heart of the authorship dispute. The organisation aims to bring female creatives to the forefront of theatre practice through various methods and are currently crowd-funding to bring this to fruition. Please visit http://burnbright.org.uk for more information.]