Which British theatre director also has a PhD in anthropology and wrote a classic study of spirit mediums and guerrilla fighters in Zimbabwe? The answer is David Lan, for the last 13 years the artistic director of the Young Vic, where the latest stunning production is a French play about Patrice Lumumba which has never been performed in English before.
David Lan's name isn't listed in the creative team, but it's very much his idea. He suggested the play by Aime Cesaire to director Joe Wright, who has created a show that is absolutely breathtaking. I can't think of anything better I've seen this year.
I've never met Lan, but by a strange coincidence I've known his name since the mid-1980s, when I was working as a journalist in Zimbabwe. His anthropological study Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe was on my bookshelf and helped me add to my very superficial diagnosis of that country's strange and fractured psychology.
Lan isn't a household name or a well-known face like Sam Mendes. You don't see him profiled in glossy magazines. But his record of achievement at the Young Vic is quite astonishing, particularly in his ability to pair up directing and acting talent to reinvent familiar shows and rediscover unknown ones. I'm thinking of Michael Sheen as Hamlet, directed by Ian Rickson, of Carrie Cracknell's A Doll's House with Hattie Morahan, of Richard Jones' modern Chinese setting of The Good Soul of Szechuan, of the revival of Langston Hughes' Simply Heavenly. Like Nicholas Hytner at the National, Lan knows how to produce cutting-edge theatre that also puts bums on seats. The Young Vic's repertoire has managed to combine a global reach, particularly African creative links, with a close involvement in its local Southwark community. Having successfully rebuilt the Young Vic without losing any of its atmosphere, Lan would be my choice to run the National Theatre in succession to Hytner, though the job will almost certainly go to someone younger (Lan was born in 1952).
Joe Wright is best known as a film director (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) and I didn't see his Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar last year. This production wins standing ovations from the audience, and they're absolutely justified. It blends great acting, particularly from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba, with music, dance, puppetry and design to create a theatrical blend of extraordinary power. The creative team on this show fills a whole page, but there's no sense of the text being swamped under a heavy load of designer baggage; nor is there any tedious repetition.
Aime Cesaire's text was first performed in Paris in 1967; its final scene has Mobutu (renamed Mokutu in the original French text, no doubt for diplomatic reasons) leading a massacre of protesters. The western-backed military dictator went on to rule Congo (which he renamed Zaire) for another three decades. That gives the play a prophetic depth and makes it a play about the fate of Africa, not just of the Congo. The story of Lumumba becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, particularly in the scenes where the newly independent state starts to fall apart. We're in the world of Henry IV here, with scenes in the bars of Leopoldville (Lumumba started off as a beer salesman), and Mistress Quickly figure in the shape of bar owner Mama Makosi. I'm not surprised to learn that Cesaire went on to write a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Lumumba is a flawed hero in the Shakespearean sense, but definitely one of the anti-colonial good guys in this play. After half a century of African history, Cesaire's leftwing political perspective might seem a bit dated to some people, in the way that Bertolt Brecht's plays can also seen as being of their time. The saintly figure of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold emerges as a blond-wigged hypocrite, the Belgians and Americans are the villains and the Katangese secessionists lounge by the pool around being fanned by servants. There's not much 'balance' here, but nor is there in Shakespeare's Richard III. The theatrical language Wright and his design team have chosen, using piggy snouts and puppetry, seems to me vivid and perfectly chosen. There's a heart-stopping moment of sheer genius when tiny toy soldiers descend on tiny parachutes into the auditorium to denote an assault by Belgian paratroopers.
What can one say about Chiwetel Ejiofor? He won an Olivier Best Actor award for Othello at the Donmar five years ago, but hasn't been seen on stage in London since then. Well, it's certainly been worth the wait to see him incarnating Lumumba. There are also excellent performances by Joseph Mydell as President Kasavubu and Daniel Kaluuya as the sly Mobutu. This is probably the third or fourth Young Vic production I've seen with an all-black cast, and it's the most successful by far. Most recently I saw Feast, an exploration of Yoruba culture, which was let down by an uneven mixture of writing from a group of authors which never came together into a play. A Season In The Congo, by contrast, has everything going for it. I suspect the rest of the run may be sold out after excellent reviews, but I would happily see it again tomorrow.