'Tree': Theater Review

Tree Production Still - Publicity - H 2019
Marc Brenner
More bark than bite.

Idris Elba's personal passion project is a musically rich drama set in post-apartheid South Africa, which heads to London's Young Vic following its controversial Manchester launch.

Idris Elba adds another hat to his already extensive collection as co-creator of Tree, an ambitiously staged musical drama about exile, race and family secrets. Set in South Africa, this visually spectacular passion project draws on a range of personal inspirations, including Elba's screen portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), his 2014 album collaboration Mi Mandela and the death of his own father.

The superstar actor-director's side career as a club DJ also bleeds into Kwame Kwei-Armah's immersive promenade production, which begins and ends with booming dance music as cast and audience mingle under pulsing disco lights. After its world-premiere residency at Manchester International Festival ends this weekend, Tree transfers to London for a longer run at the Young Vic theater from July 29.

Long in gestation, Tree finally bore fruit only after Kwei-Armah, the Young Vic's current artistic director, came on board. Elba had previously explored story ideas with various collaborators, including writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley, whose protests over uncredited authorship triggered a wave of negative publicity when the Manchester run opened last week. Both women are thanked in the program, but Elba and Kwei-Armah firmly deny any implied plagiarism, insisting that the completed work is entirely new.

Whether this controversy will dent the play's commercial prospects is debatable, but it may help explain why Tree feels a little disjointed and unfocused, like the hybrid creation of multiple authors all pulling in different directions. Elba's name in the credits will undoubtedly boost interest, although obviously not as much as a personal acting role would have done. Manchester reviews have been generally lukewarm, and most of the Young Vic dates still have tickets available.

Former Harry Potter films co-star Alfred Enoch heads the cast as Kaelo, a 30-ish Londoner of mixed racial heritage, with family roots in apartheid-era South Africa. After his mother's death, Kaelo makes a sentimental pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland to scatter her ashes on his late father's grave, assuming he can locate it. All he knows is that the father he never knew is buried somewhere on the sprawling family estate still ruled by his white grandmother Elzebe (a reliably flinty Sinead Cusack), a formidable matriarch who guards her heavily fenced queendom with a shotgun.

Elzebe is brusquely welcoming to Kaelo, but wary of his investigations into the family's conflicted history during apartheid. Meanwhile, the young Englishman begins to experience feverish dreams and ghostly visitations, which Kwei-Armah and choreographer Gregory Maqoma stage as dynamic dance numbers.

Tree is full of such striking set pieces, but it lacks conviction and coherence as a narrative whole. Kaelo and Elzebe feel more like stock characters than real, semi-estranged blood relatives with decades of buried secrets to resolve. The fish-out-of-water plot is a classic trope, largely because it typically generates dramatic tension, but here it gets lost in portentous ruminations about the ghosts of history and the mystical vibrations of the land.

Even in its compact 90-minute single-act format, Tree sags in places, particularly during some clunky exposition scenes. But energy levels jump considerably with the introduction of Kaelo's half-sister Ofentse (Joan Iyiola), a former rapper turned property developer, who dresses like Missy Elliott and talks like Malcolm X. Enraged by 25 years of hollow promises about post-apartheid land redistribution, she galvanizes her militant followers with cries of "Fuck Mandela!," a shocking heresy to innocent cultural tourists like Kaelo. "Why are you here?" she quizzes him disdainfully. "You want to spend the night in the hood with your black family?"

A boisterous, contradictory, politically charged symbol of post-Mandela South Africa, Ofentse would have made a far more compelling lead character than the overly naive, mono-dimensional Kaelo. The issues she embodies certainly have more timely dramatic bite than her half-brother's search for his ancestral roots, which is worthy and relatable but also fairly passionless.

Tree is easier to enjoy as pageant-like spectacle than emotionally engaging narrative. The physical theater elements are certainly technically impressive, with energetic castmembers multitasking as both animate and inanimate objects. Jon Bausor's set design, with its vast overhead cyclorama screen woven from what looks like wicker, is a dazzling piece of stage architecture with an emphatically African flavor. That said, this production will need to be scaled down when it relocates to London, as the Young Vic is a smaller space with around half the capacity of the cavernous Manchester warehouse venue. But any such tightening could end up benefiting the story, as audience focus will be more concentrated.

Woven throughout Tree is a musical score by East London producer-composer Michael "Mikey J" Asante, a pleasingly fertile blend of South African voices with hip-hop and pop elements. Elba's DJ side really comes to the fore in the final scene, which feels like a full-on rave party. This is a joyously uplifting way to end a night at the theater, even if the uneven, bittersweet dramatic buildup does not quite earn such an euphoric climax. 

Venue: Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester, through July 13; Young Vic, London, from July 29
Cast: Sinead Cusack, Alfred Enoch, Kurt Egyiawan, Christian Bradley, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Joan Iyiola, Anna-Kay Gayle, Anthony Matsena, Daniella May, Patrice Naiambana, Mbulelo Ndabeni, Stefan Sinclair, Andile Sotiya
Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah 
Playwright: Kwame Kwei-Armah, based on a concept by Idris Elba
Set and costume designer: Jon Bausor
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Michael "Mikey J" Asante
Sound designer: Paul Arditti

Choreographer: Gregory Maqoma
Projection designer: Duncan McLean
Presented by Manchester International Festival, Young Vic, Green Door Productions