I knew an actor in the 70s who refused a part in a South African play that engaged with and opposed apartheid, on the grounds that playing the character he was being asked to play, an Afrikaner policeman whose actions were interrogated by the play, made him complicit with the character’s actions. I thought it was nonsense then, and now, after 40 years of reflection, I still think it was nonsense. But I am interested in complicity in shows. The production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge used the perambulatory audience as the mob, appealed to by Caesar, swayed by Brutus, persuaded by Marc Antony. I was OK with all of that back and forth, what I found unacceptable was being part of the crowd that murdered Cinna the Poet. I like to think, had I been there, I would have objected, or at any rate tutted pointedly; whatever, I wouldn’t have joined in the way the Bridge made me join in. I want some agency as an audience member to approve or disapprove, because discriminating is the job of an audience. Actors serve the play, audiences judge it. Which brings me to Tree…
The controversy regarding the originating of the script (by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin or Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, depending on who you believe) notwithstanding, this is a seriously sketchy playlet. Trying to explore the complexities of contemporary South African politics and the legacy of Apartheid through the medium of interpretive dance and banging beats would be a challenge for anyone. Whichever combination of writers made a stab at it, they didn’t make it happen.
And then there’s audience participation. I am prepared to listen to criticism of Mandela, and Truth and Reconciliation, but I need more than an angry young black woman shrieking ‘Fuck Mandela!’ Her criticism needs to be articulated, I won’t be guilted into revising everything I think I know about post-Apartheid politics by a spokesperson who sounded an awful lot like one of Mugabe’s War Veterans, and I certainly won’t come out of the audience to represent a ‘government official’ issuing a notice of expropriation to Sinead Cusack’s Afrikaner farmer without an extensive debate. Participating audience members don’t get to debate, they get to be pulled out of the crowd by smiley stewards to find themselves on-stage being applauded by their mates. I think that is problematic.
The (sketchy) story tells of a mixed-race Londoner taking the ashes of his white mother back to her South African home to be scattered. While there, he gets an introduction to colonial politics and the fate of his black father from his farmer-granny and his angry half-sister, livid that the promises of Mandela’s ANC haven’t been kept. I don’t really mind that a university graduate in London today seems to know nothing about South African history beyond ‘Mandela was a god’, but he is mostly informed by choreographed dance-battles while he dreams, and the mystic properties of red African soil. It wasn’t nearly enough. Plays have a duty to make difficult arguments, to animate new points-of-view, and they cannot be as simplistic as this about big, controversial ideas, because that demeans the ideas.
I liked the dancing and the movement and the swirl of actors and audience in the cockpit of the Young Vic. I hated the agressively, loudly, insistently dull beats-per-minute club anthems we were invited to celebrate with, which may be a statement about my age and colour, or a tribute to my affection for Elvin Jones and Al Jackson and their ability to drive a tune without giving me a headache. I resented a seat in the gallery that had significant parts of the action blocked by a huge cane cyclorama on which things were projected that I couldn’t see. It’s one thing to have sight-lines blocked by Victorian architecture, it’s something else again to have my view blocked by the numpty doing the design. But fundamentally, I object to a play that makes the complicated history of post-Apartheid South Africa, and the discovery of Africa by people from the African diaspora, so idiot-simple. The ideas are big, they deserve big treatment. Tree doesn’t do it, whoever devised the script.