Tree, an updated agitprop production at the Young Vic, is Idris Elba’s ‘Brexit play’. One of its stars, Joan Iyiola, tells Leo Garib why
21 August, 2019 — By Leo Garib
Joan Iyiola in Tree at the Young Vic
WHEN we’re in a time of crisis, when old certainties are being turned upside down, art is supposed to come up with a few solutions.
Which was the starting point for a ground-breaking play by Idris Elba, star of TV’s Luther, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, one of Britain’s top theatre directors. Tree, which has sold out at the Young Vic, is their Brexit play.
On the surface, it is the story of a mixed-heritage twenty-something from Tufnell Park who goes to South Africa to bury his white mother’s ashes. But Tree is also an almost unprecedented rebuke of the attitudes behind Brexit, empire and debt, and is a challenge to the ideas white Britons have of themselves.
It is almost unprecedented because the last incarnation of such overtly political theatre – or agit-prop – was Unity Theatre, a tiny company in Somers Town brought that brought agit-prop to Britain and was the launch pad for some of our best known stars.
It is a play for the age, said Joan Iyiola, who stars as Kaelo’s South African half-sister, Ofentse.
“Early on in the rehearsals, Kwame said: ‘This is our Brexit play’. He said the best way to deal with everything that’s going on right now is to subvert it.”
In Tree, twenty-something Kaelo – played by Harry Potter star Alfred Enoch – goes on a journey of discovery that upends everything he thought he knew about South Africa, the legacy of Britain’s empire, black politics and white attitudes.
Iyiola, who won acclaim as a black Duchess of Malfi in last year’s award-winning Royal Shakespeare production, is the play’s most militant character a conduit for some of Elba and Kwei-Armah’s most challenging politics.
At one point, infuriated by Kaeolo’s starry-eyed deification of Nelson Mandela, she shouts “Fuck Nelson Mandela!”.
Mandela “told us to forgive the whites and we would inherit the land. Where is our land? Twenty-five years later we are still waiting,” she tells a dumbfounded Kaelo.
Like so much of the dialogue, it is aimed at exploding comfortable, popular assumptions many of us make about the past. Mandela, of whom there is a giant bust on the Southbank, is part of the myth that South Africa, and more broadly the legacy of empire, has been happily resolved. Mandela created a happy rainbow nation, goes the myth, and empire is all in the past.
That Ofentse delivers the damning verdict from among the circle seats while Kaelo is alone on stage, is part of the agit-prop aesthetic that compels the audience to empathise, involve itself and take sides. Tree starts and ends with an on-stage rave the audience are encouraged to take part in, and includes audience participation in the tradition of agit-prop that began in the 1920s Soviet Union and was developed by Bertolt Brecht in 1930s Germany as a weapon
The ‘Fuck Mandela’ moment was the brainchild of Idris Elba, a Golden Globe nominee for his starring role as Mandela in the biopic Long Walk to Freedom, said Iyiola.
“We came up with the ‘Fuck Mandela’ moment came after playing around with a lot of different ideas in the rehearsal room,. Kwame has an open rehearsal room, so people come in and watch. You have young directors, people doing work experience, investors in the play hanging around and watching us. We gained so much from having those bodies in the room and it was Idris who looked at it and suddenly suggested that maybe we should say those lines from there to bring the play more into the audience.”
In fact, Mandela is a complex figure in South Africa. The leader of the African National Congress was closely involved in deals made by his nascent government in the early 1990s that ensured British and US corporations would continue their economic and political domination of the country long after Apartheid fell.
Cue a quarter century of neo-liberalism that has forced the majority black population to its knees and primed a political powder keg. And for the first time militant black nationalism is given a hearing on a major London stage. The Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s most radical party not only appear on stage but their controversial policy of appropriating the country’s vast white-owned farms is debated. Ofentse is the main advocate for land appropriation without compensation – a policy just announced by the South African ANC government under pressure from the EFF. Third-placed in parliament, the EFF are widely regarded as inheritors of the liberation politics once espoused by the ANC.
The links to Brexit and our attitudes to empire come across loud and clear. Appropriation of the white farms has become a touchstone for the Alt-Right supporters of Trump and for many Brexit advocates. It also has echoes of similar appropriation in Zimbabwe during the early 1980s, when then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher called Mandela a terrorist and began a policy of undermining Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe that continues to this day.
South Africa’s history is intimately bound up with Britain’s, the former colonial occupier. After invading and appropriating the land – among the troops a notoriously bloodthirsty young officer by the name of Winston Churchill – Britain legislated the conditions for Apartheid. As South Africa became a cold war frontline, with the ANC backed by the Soviet Union, Britain and the US propped up the Apartheid regime. It wasn’t until the first ANC government in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the lines became blurred.
Like many post-Apartheid black South Africans, Iyiola’s character simply isn’t ready to forgive and forget the past, not least because the racial inequalities are still deep.
Which is where Idris Elba, Kwame Kwei-Armah and the play returns to the thorny issue of empire, an idea Britain has of its past that has fuelled Brexit.
“It is one of the things I had a lot of tension with,” said Iyiola, who lives in Hackney. “I think you can’t force forgiveness. When I went to South Africa to research the play, the women I met were incredibly angry about it. Ofentse is trying to forgive and people try but it doesn’t mean people will get there. All it means is that they take one step towards forgiveness. Whether they turn back, who knows.”
Most white theatregoers instinctively identify with the white characters, she said. First with Kaelo’s white grandmother, who owns the vast farm on which the action takes place but whose views are exposed as supremacist. Then, when the grandmother is too problematic, the white audience tends to side with her daughter – Kaelo’s mother – who flees the violence of Apartheid South Africa for north London but whose attitudes are unresolved.
“We’re in a really interesting place with all this,” said Iyiola. “The late black female author Toni Morrison said she had to talk about black people because for so long we’re the ones who haven’t had the opportunity to be heard. So if you’re white and you’re not doing anything about racism, you’re doing a disservice because you’ve always had the privileges. You’ve always had everything. So it’s your duty to learn how the others live and if you do nothing then you are failing humanity. That’s what Toni Morrison believed and I agree. Our play asks you: ‘What is your duty?”
But Tree isn’t all anger and ends with another on-stage rave, coming full circle from its beginning, which is reflection of how it sees a resolution even to the divisions of Brexit.
“I remain positive, despite what’s happening,” said Iyiola, “but maybe that’s because I’m stubborn. Still, if I look at my own experience – the black female experience – there have been significant breakthroughs that make me believe we can’t continue to go unheard. Our collective voice keeps getting louder. So, yes, we are living in a really uncomfortable period where things will get a lot darker before we rise through, but there is a space for the black female voice to rise up and be heard. When you look back at who were the first people to speak up and change things, it is women. So I feel empowered.”