Under the Kundè Tree – Southwark Playhouse Borough, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Clarisse Makundul

Director: Ebenezer Bamgboye

Under the Kundè Tree is a tremendous piece of theatre – vibrant, energetic and moving. Writer and actor Clarisse Makundul brings alive a vital piece of colonial history: the secret Cameroon War of Independence. Makundel’s imaginative focus on a young woman gets straight to the heart of personal and political tensions.

Sara loves penniless Jean, but her father insists she marries a local chief. This will bring her ‘the greatest honour,’ he insists, together with a handsome dowry. Sara rejects a system which will trap her as her country has been trapped. Denied education, Sara longs for a future which offers choice. Here women are only valued by their fecundity. Her married cousin Nadia articulates her own feeling of worthlessness at being unable to conceive.

Crucial to our understanding of the situation is the division between Cameroonians who want liberation from colonial rule and the Evolue – those who have fully assimilated French law, language and customs, admiring this lifestyle over their own indigenous one. Makundul dramatizes this neatly in an early scene between father and son, in which the latter dares to challenge the status quo.

Storytelling is taut and strong direction by Ebenezer Bamboye maintains pace and intensity. The narrative is complemented by brilliant ensemble work directed by Rose Ryan: mime and dance vividly conveying the drama that is playing out around the central characters. Particularly effective are scenes of intimidation and torture which are conveyed in stylised movement. Of all the powerful moments in the play, one stands out: when a torturer reaches for a machete, miming a slow, sinister attack on Sara while grinning at his own power. Unforgettable.

The sound design by Max Pappenheim is excellent and includes poignant singing by Amma-Afi Osei Nadia and the echoing sounds of microphones as political leaders address huge crowds. We also hear patronising broadcasters, belittling the people at the centre of the war.

Just five actors create a world that seems peopled by hundreds. Selina Jones, as Sara, is a mesmerising performer, with liquid, powerful movements and a wonderful vocal range. Amma-Afi Osei is an engaging Nadia. Makundul herself plays an anonymous woman. There are two male actors, Fode Simbo and Yinka Awoni, who play Jean and Pa, respectively, but also become convincing incarnations of powerful political figures and torturing thugs.

At times the speed and intensity of the acting mean that words are not clearly articulated: some of the key concepts – the UPC (Union des Populations du Cameroon), Evolue and Kundè itself (liberation) – almost disappear because the words are rushed. But overall, Under the Kundè Tree is an important and thoroughly captivating work which deserves a wider audience.

Runs until 17 June 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

tremendous theatre

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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