Idris Elba had been thinking of turning his 2014 album mi Mandela into a theatrical piece; the MIF 2019 solicitation was the tipping point: a play called Tree is the outcome (acted by others, not Elba).
Set in South Africa, where politics are still seen in black and white, Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s large-scale promenade show looks at the legacy of colonial land-grabs and violent fight-backs against apartheid to find that there’s no simple solution at hand today.
Inspired by Elba’s “Mi Mandela” album, a cross-cultural collaboration with British and South African musicians recorded after he shot “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the creative process of “Tree” has overshadowed the opening.
It tells the story of Kaelo, a mixed-raced London lad (Alfred Enoch) who goes to South Africa to scatter his mother’s ashes. He stays with his tough-as-teak Afrikaner granny (Sinéad Cusack) who faces losing her farm through new land reform laws. He is clueless; she knows more than she’s letting on.
So, we have a young man seen as a black Englishman and an old white African woman at the heart of a play that engages with the complex subjects of race, belonging, family and change with conspicuous intelligence and originality.
Aptly produced for MIF, Tree is a play given the freedom to be different; to challenge convention.
The informal vibe in Manchester’s Upper Campfield Market Hall where it is presented before a run at the Young Vic in London at the end of the month, felt more like a gig rather than a traditional hush-hush, straight-laced, po-faced proscenium arch affair.
You are invited to dance on stage before and after the show, while during it the actors walk through the audience who are standing throughout (you can sit, but all you’ll see is the back of people’s legs).
It is a spirited, spiritual production.