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Review: Tree, at Young Vic Theatre

15 August, 2019 — By Howard Loxton

Sinead Cusack and Joan Iyiola in Tree. Photo: Marc Brenner

TREE has its germ in the album mi Mandela that Idris Elba recorded with African musicians, especially the track Tree, addressed to his father.

This play, which he has created with director Kwame Kwei-Armah, is about family and roots that go deep in the earth like a real tree.

It presents a young Londoner, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), who travels to South Africa to carry out his dead mother’s wishes and scatter her ashes on the grave of the father he never knew in a land he had never been to and where his only personal contact is with the Afrikaner grandmother his mother had broken off contact with.

The meeting between mixed-race grandson and Sinéad Cusack’s stern-faced white landowner is awkward but an encounter with her gardener Gweki (Patrice Naiambana), who becomes almost a spirit guide, begins to open the past and the path to his father’s grave, while the discovery of a half-sister (Joan Iyiola) gives him a view on South Africa’s present.

This isn’t a political history but as Kaelo discovers the truth of his family story, guided by his ancestors, the personal parallels the pain and the problems of the country not through word-heavy argument but throbbing with feeling that is generated through movement and music.

On entering it is like a disco, everyone dancing. There are seats in the gallery but the standing audience groups around a central playing space, the actors moving through them, sometimes involving them.

Once the play proper starts the ancestors are already there sweeping Kaelo through the airport and carrying him off to Africa, all strikingly choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. Kaelo is raised into the heavens to witness the meetings of his mother (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and his father (Kurt Egyiawan) and political rallies, violent battles and the creation of a tree that seems to promise reconciliation are created through visceral physical theatre, vivid projections and lighting.

The script may be a bit thin in its detail but it is imaginative theatre that sets out to affect feelings not provide information. The energy of an excellent cast transfers to the audience. You don’t notice you’ve been standing for 90 minutes and, if you want to, you can go on dancing!

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