By Jay Darcy
For months, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s new play, Tree has been one of the most hotly-anticipated productions of 2019. Then, two days before its opening night as part of the Manchester International Fesitval (MIF), when the theatre would be filled with critics and special guests, it became one of the most controversial.
Writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley wrote a lengthy article alleging that they worked on the production for years, before being dismissed and silenced. Elba, Kwei-Armah, MIF, and The Young Vic, whilst acknowledging the writers had worked on the project, have all strenuously denied their allegations.
Controversy aside, Tree was an exhilarating production. An electrifying blend of drama, song, music and dance, the production was part-play and part-disco extravaganza. It opened and closed with a dance, with a DJ playing African-inspired dance music and the actors encouraging audience-members to join them onstage. A highlight was seeing Alfred Enoch (Harry Potter, How to Get Away with Murder) encourage an older gentleman to boogie.
The play’s story saw a mixed-race British South African man head to his ancestral home to learn about his father. There, he meets his distant maternal grandmother and his zealous paternal half-sister. Whilst the story was bold, brave, topical and interesting, I preferred the production as an immersive experience than as a socio-political play.
The production relied heavily on audience interaction. Actors twice handed out protest signs for audience members to hold, directly involving us in the action. However, I felt quite sorry for the man who had to carry a racist, pro-Apartheid sign…
This happened when the main character, Kaelo (Enoch), was raised to the ceiling with a harness and envisioned his family’s history: His white mother and black father falling-in-love during the most violent years of Apartheid. Offering the audience signs and pushing us to the front of the stage forced us to become a part of Kaelo’s (slightly clunky but very gripping) vision.
It was a little odd how Kaelo seemed surprised to learn of the violence that occurred during Apartheid, but I appreciated the play’s nuanced take on South African politics. It was surprising to learn many black South Africans detest Nelson Mandela. The play delved into political discussions not often heard in the west.
The set consisted of a circular stage, with steps leading down to the audience, and a runway leading into the audience. There were no permanent set-pieces, instead, actors would move them about. At times, the ensemble was playing ancestral spirits, so having them move set-pieces and props worked well. The most impressive piece of set was the tree (pictured). Bags containing masses of rope fell from the ceiling, then crew and selected audience-members brought the titular tree to life.
The use of song and dance in the production was incredible, not only stunning to hear and watch, but it also helped set the scene. For example, instead of showing Kaelo hopping on and off a plane, this transition was represented with a stunning dance, which was much more enchanting than watching a guy at an airport…
Enoch was captivating as the lead character, Kaelo, who seemed to deliberately be written as just an ordinary guy to allow the audience to enter his mind and watch the action unfold around us. As aforementioned, the ensemble forced us into Kaelo’s vision, which increased our emotive response to his family’s (and country’s) history. Olivier and Tony nominee Sinéad Cusack played Kaelo’s cold grandmother, a white woman who feels ashamed of the past. She became more likeable and sympathetic as the play progressed, even when it was revealed she was indirectly responsible for a tragedy, but Cusack was fantastic from the second she appeared.
Whilst some are calling for a boycott of this play, I would argue it is an important production that ought to be seen (and experienced). It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. However, notice should also be given to Allen-Martin and Henley. You can support their Burn Bright organisation, which sets out to support female writers, by clicking here.
Tree runs at Manchester International Festival until 13 July, then at the Young Vic, London, 29 July to 24 August.