27 Jul 2013

A Season in the Congo: Lumumba’s rise makes electric theatre

If you’ve never sat in a bar in Kinshasa or Goma and, clasping a wet, ice-cold, Primus beer, drank deep of the heat and the music and sheer electricity of Congolese life, you can – for a limited period – do exactly that: in central London.

Amid an ingeniously-constructed set, recreating exactly that scene, actors and musicians at the Young Vic unleash a three-hour spectacular, A Season in the Congo, depicting the rise – and then grim demise – of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of post-colonial Congo.

As a correspondent who has covered Congo over the past 10 years, I was transported straight back. The feel is contemporary, but the story that plays out belongs to a different era – 50 years ago. The play, by Caribbean writer Aime Cesaire, weaves the two together.

“It’s about how the injustices of the past have shaped the injustices of the present,” says the play’s director, Joe Wright. “How economic colonialism is still being perpetrated today by a different cast of politicians, nations and corporations.”

The play is a great watch, its heavy themes lightened by the vibrancy and creativity of its presentation. I hadn’t actually heard of Cesaire’s play before: it was written in the mid-1960s but this is the first time it has been performed in English.

A Season in the Congo, though, belongs to a long and noble artistic tradition.

Literary tradition

Joseph Conrad started it, back in 1899. Arguably. But since then, Congo has spawned a star-spangled collection of literary greats. To many African writers – with the late Chinua Achebe leading the charge – Heart of Darkness was a racist novel.

But racial issues do cut to the heart of much that’s been written since, along with the cruelties of colonialism and its political fallout – fallout that plays out today in a depressingly perpetual cycle of conflict, kleptocracy, poverty and injustice.

King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), by Adam Hochschild, tops my non-fiction charts. It’s billed as “a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa”, and lives up to its billing. Reading it, I bristled. It triggered fantasies of traveling to Belgium to cut off the hands of any horseback statues of King Leopold that I could find.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (2000), by Michaela Wrong, told the true story of President Mobutu Sese Seko – “The Leopard” – whose three decades as dictator of what he re-branded Zaire encapsulated greed and tyranny too, this time by an African kleptocrat.

In fiction, there’s Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible (1998) which, as a missionary’s son myself, blew me away when I read it. Hillary Rodham Clinton once said it was her favourite book.

Graham Greene had a crack at Congo with his A Burnt Out Case (1960) and John Le Carre published The Mission Song in 2006, which dealt with conflict resources in the Kivus. It was complex read, but bang on the money. Le Carre took Michaela Wrong as his guide.

My favourite novel on Congo – which will forever be close to the top of Miller’s fiction chart – is The Catastrophist, by former IRA-man Ronan Bennett. It’s a powerful and turbulent love story set against the equally turbulent politics of post-independence Congo.

Political dreams

As with Aime Cesaire’s play, the charismatic, democratically elected prime minister of newly independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba, occupies a central role, although in Bennett’s book it’s all in the background. As Lumumba’s political dreams crumble, so the relationship between his two key characters self-destructs too. The climax of the book mirrors that of Cesaire’s play and ultimately lends a deep melancholy to the picture it paints of Congo.

It’s a melancholy I share with those of my many fellow reporters who have covered the seemingly endless cycle of conflict and plunder that has afflicted the country ever since. What’s refreshing and uplifting about Joe Wright’s production, though, is that the darkness is suffused by the light of Congolese creativity – its music, its poetry and its beer.

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