Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Manchester International Festival
Upper Campfield Market Hall
Tree certainly helped to get the party vibe going at the launch night of MIF19. Walking into Upper Campfield Market Hall the club night was in full swing. The huge stepped circular stage and runway platform were filled with dancers and audience members. There was a real energy and dynamism in the space that was coming from the audience as well as the performers. So far so good as this production has had it’s fair share of bad press this week with very measured and detailed statements from writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley who worked on the project until last year claiming to have been unceremoniously kicked off. Co-creator and Director Kwame Kwei-Armah seemed to want to take the project in another direction and these women are now uncredited for their contribution.
So what does Tree actually have to say in its tale of personal loss and the bloody history of South Africa? Influenced by the loss of his father in the same year as the death of Nelson Mandela, his filming of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and making his album Mi Mandela Idris Elba was inspired to create a piece of musical theatre. The subsequent end result, working closely with Director Kwame Kwei-Armah blends drama, music and dance as a young mixed race Londoner travels to South Africa to place his mother’s ashes by his father’s grave. Tree is an attempt to confront the ghosts of a fractured family history while also seeking to reconcile with the turbulent history of this complex country.
Through conversations with the living and dreamlike sequences watching history play out below him Kaleo delves into the tragic origins of his parents love affair and the bitter outcome of that love during Apartheid. Theatre blends with riotous dance that spills of the stage as audience participation is encouraged during riot scenes and celebratory dance scenes. There is a lot to like in this piece which has a strong cast including Sinéad Cusack, Alfred Enoch and Patrice Naiambana and it is beautifully staged. The tech team of Jon Clark, Paul Arditti and Duncan McLean have done a wonderful job of lighting, sound and projection which make for something quite special.
The story told is not new or unique but it is clearly personal to many who lived through or are still living in the shadows of South Africa’s past and forging a new and fairer society. Sadly that is where I have issues with Tree as in the enthusiasm to embrace so much the central characters are never fully fleshed out. These creations deserve more respect and fleshing out to fully understand the complexities of living through Apartheid. This still feels like a young sapling rather than a mighty oak. Hopefully it will grow and develop the strong roots that this ambitious project was clearly striving for.
Images credit Marc Brenner