Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester International Festival ★★★★✩
WALK into a performance of Tree, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d come to the wrong place. There’s a dancefloor instead of seats, a DJ and people wildly dancing to banging South African house music.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah said he and co-creator Idris Elba wanted audiences to experience the kind of energy you feel at gigs. They achieve that before a line is spoken.
When that first line comes, it’s from the middle of this sea of movement, on a huge peninsular stage. Our hero Kaelo (a suitably quizzical Alfred Enoch) wanders through the audience — who at other points hold signs, wave phones and speak lines — as he begins a journey from London to South Africa to uncover his roots after the death of his white mother Cezanne (Lucy Briggs-Owen).
When he arrives, his Afrikaner grandmother, played with fierce implacability by Sinead Cusack, tells him a black man has never stayed in her house before. The scene is set for a journey into South Africa’s violent history and troubled apartheid aftermath. Nothing particularly new — but it’s the way this is presented that is so refreshing.
The soundtrack from Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante is haunting during the more metaphysical moments and thumping when the action ramps up, with Gregory Maqoma’s choreography working brilliantly. And projections on the circular, woven matting above are vivid and compelling.
All of which makes it such a shame that the two women who worked with Elba on what would become Tree, Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin, say that they haven’t been credited properly. Everyone should be able to be recognised for this vibrant work: a gateway moment for a new generation of theatre-goers.