FringeReview UK 2023
Selina Jones is the stand-out even amongst these actors. Her mix of passion and dignity, her explosive conflicts with Yinka Awoni and Fode Simbo – so visceral it’s disturbing. There’s much to learn here, and as theatrical spectacle this is the intimate intimating the epic. Clarisse Makundul has given us a powerful work, and I’d urge you to see it.
Written by Clarisse Makundul Directed by Ebenezer Bamgboye, Set and Costume Designer Niall McKeever, Lighting & Video Designer Arnim Friess, Sound Designer Max Pappenheim, Movement Director Rose Ryan, Dramaturgs Gregoire Colin, Laure Bachelier-Mazon
Production Manager Adam Jefferys, Stage Manager, Olivia Wolfenden, Producer Clarisse Makundul Productions.
Till June 17th
Clarisse Makundul’s Under the Kunde Tree, directed by Ebenezer Bamgboye at the Southwark Borough Little till June 17th, is a hypnotically beautiful five-hander, with intimations of the terrible.
The Cameroonian struggle independence from 1948-61 was uniquely marked by the agency of women, partly because men were disappeared, imprisoned, murdered or exiled, sometimes able to continue in the maquis, a word appropriated from their (mainly French) oppressors with bitter irony. But Makundul’s deeply-informed play – which comes with lyric interludes sung by Amma-Afi Osei with rapt beauty – centres for the most part on one woman, Sara (Selina Jones) from a banana-growing family.
Her father or Pa (Yinka Awoni) has educated Sara, and in turns he wants her to marry the chief of their clan. But Sara already loves clan outsider Jean (Fode Simbo) who however still wants to prove worthy of Sara, ad indeed Pa. The conflicts here with the backdrop of struggle inform the absorbing first act of 45 minutes. To memorable ensemble movement direction by Rose Ryan, the five move on and off a raised mound of grass, the core of Niall McKeever’s simple set, augmented by two chairs that have other disturbing functions.
Sara’s friend Nadia (Amma-Afi Osei) who long for a child, feels herself incomplete, counsels a more accepting course, and their aspirations contrast and counterpoint. Pa has given Sara the very horizons that make her refuse traditional obligations. Amidst vicious. There’s encounters with robbing soldiers – Awoni and Simbo multi-roling; and with Osei historical announcements to and from the UN. The shattering climax of Act One is really the most disturbing and powerful moment of the play.
After this the couple marry and with flashes of French imperial humiliation – Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – the inexorable end of colonialism is celebrated against the very different fortunes of Cameroonians; which are frankly horrific, and replicated elsewhere, lest we ever forget. It’s a complex story too, and Makundul telegraphs much of this ably and in a way easy to absorb. The programme helps enormously too. The trouble with the 40-minute second act is that the personal backgrounds itself, and the story of Sara in particular, and Jean, is faded out.
The strongest scene is when Sara’s joined by a previously non-speaking actor. Clarisse Makundul herself takes on the brief harrowing witness to a prisoner’s words, in fact verbatim from a witness statement. It’s a powerful moment especially when you know it’s verbatim from February 1957, and Makundul gives it a riveting authority: “Frankly, anyone killed here in the Cameroons is better off than those still alive and enduring the sufferings inflicted on us by the French colonialist.”
Jones though is the stand-out even amongst these actors. Her mix of passion and dignity, her explosive conflicts with Awoni and Simbo – so visceral it’s disturbing – her growth in stature through the personal to the political, lends enormous agency to Sara, a strongly-written part.
With excellent work from Osei, Awoni and Simbo voicing oppressor and those in the struggle, the highpoints of this beautifully-realised work spiral from Ryan’s excellent movement. First-rate lighting and video design from Arnim Friess projecting a dimension outside the set, is matched with Max Pappenheim’s sound both ominous and adding songs different to those Osei sings.
There’s much to learn here, and as theatrical spectacle this is the intimate intimating the epic. Its one drawback – and surely this might be addressed in its next run – is the slightly ragged conclusion. There’s certainly an ending that can be read into this work as it stands, but if only dramatically, we need a sense of an ending. Makundul though has given us a powerful work, and I’d urge you to see it.