Walk into the main theatre at the Young Vic just before showtime and you’d be mistaken for thinking you’ve arrived early-hours at the nearby Ministry of Sound. The auditorium has been transformed into a pit with a raised staged, punters standing below the platforms whilst dozens of audience members are already on stage dancing. The building is abuzz with infectious energy anticipating Young Vic boss Kwame Kwei-Armah and accomplished screen-actor-turned-musician Idris Elba’s new theatrical collaboration, TREE.
Inspired by Elba’s 2014 EDM concept-album Mi Mandela, Kwei-Armah’s story follows mixed-race Londoner Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), who, under the wishes of his recently deceased white mother, returns to her homeland of South Africa, hoping to find and scatter her ashes on the grave of his black father. This action takes Kaelo on a journey that delves into the entangled dark history of both his country and his family.
Whilst there are shades of promise in the story, Kwei-Armah’s script ultimately lets the evening down. The dialogue is sparse and the character’s quite underdeveloped, making TREE a somewhat frustrating evening lacking in resonance. In defence, Kwei-Armah’s story does not shy away from looking honestly at the horrors of post-Apartheid South Africa, but the flatness of the script leads to the play missing emotional depth. Likewise, Kwei-Armah’s staging, part gig-theatre, part physical-theatre, part art installation, is unfocused, one style never properly landing. There are some moments of brilliant and inventive staging, mostly in the movement pieces set against Idris Elba’s enjoyable music (kudos to choreographer Gregory Maqoma), but when set against the tragic narrative conveyed on stage, Elba’s celebratory beats make the story of TREE look superficial.
Billed as an ‘immersive’ production, TREE, unfortunately, fails to live up to the moniker. Unlike recent immersive pieces such as the National Theatre’s HERE LIES LOVE, the Bridge’s Shakespeare revivals and even the Young Vic’s own play THE JUNGLE, the immersive aspect of TREE seems unnecessary,. The audience are pitted around the circular stage on three sides, standing where there honestly might as well be seats. Aside from some awkward (and unintentionally hilarious) audience interaction, the promise of immersion is never fully realised in Kwei-Armah’s surprisingly static production.
The hard-working cast of TREE do their best with the material, with Enoch’s wide-eyed Kaelo serving as a likeable bridge between the audience and the narrative. Despite this, largely due to the writing, Enoch struggles to provide the necessary emotion in the role to allow the audience to properly connect with the character. In previous stage roles, Enoch has proved a serious talent, going toe-to-toe with powerhouse Alfred Molina in last year’s West End production of RED, and proving a highlight in the Royal Exchange’s KING LEAR opposite Don Warrington back in 2016, so I wouldn’t let his slightly underwhelming role in TREE define his undeniable talents as an actor. The standout of the evening was veteran actress Sinéad Cusack as Kaelo’s grandmother Elzebe. Cusack finds depth and inner conflict in the character, as she is torn by her personal history, and what she believes is right, making her story far and away the most interesting plot of the play.
All in all, there are things to enjoy in TREE. Whilst the narrative is frustrating, Kwei-Armah’s staging does provide glimmers of magic, moments filled with an overwhelming sense of celebration and joy. Judging by the audience’s willingness to jump on stage and dance at the climax of the piece, perhaps I’m in the minority with my doubts on the emotional resonance of the piece. In my view, TREE has unfortunately been the first real miss since Kwei-Armah took over programming at the Young Vic. Following genuinely brilliant productions of TWELFTH NIGHT, THE CONVERT, JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN and the incredible reimagining of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, TREE is sadly an underwhelming production of a project that has real promise.
Reviewer’s Note: I’ve chosen not to mention the plagiarism claims directed at this production that surfaced in June 2019 and objectively reviewed this production of TREE as its own. You can read about the claims here.