Review | Tree, Young Vic Theatre

Tree hasn’t been given a star rating in this review. Not only because I’m starting to question how meaningful star ratings are. But when a show is riddled in controversy, it’s difficult to take an ‘objective’ look at the piece. So this is not a typical review, but a collection of thoughts of and around the show itself.

In Tree, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), is haunted by vivid dreams. After the passing of his mother, he ventures to South Africa for the first time and meets his maternal grandmother. During the trip, he digs up some uncomfortable truths about his father and South Africa’s history.

Enoch in this production is the King of Stares. He frequently looks dazed and surprised by the goings on around him. It’s a feeling that’s not too dissimilar to the ones I’ve had about the show.

When you enter the Young Vic’s main theatre you are welcomed onto the stage to dance along with the cast. There’s a DJ to hype up the crowd and Enoch (Harry Potter, How to Get Away with Murder) makes a surprise appearance amongst all the dancing. He is met with lit up phones and stretched out arms as some of the patrons are keen to get a selfie with the star.

Tree has been described as immersive and the production certainly seeks to bring the experience to you. The majority of the audience stands around the raised stage and the actors are often found walking in and amongst the crowd. Some patrons are handed protest signs to hold and if you’re lucky enough, you may be invited onto the stage and read out a few lines.

If it’s possible to carve out my thoughts on just the show alone for a moment, my initial impression was that it was eye-opening. The show delves into some difficult themes about the racial tensions and violent history between the white and black people in South Africa. There are several wounds which have clearly not been healed and it’s a perspective of South African history that isn’t often discussed. It was pleasing to see that this production seeks to shed a light on this and spurred me to do research of my own.

My only slight concern with the production itself was that the celebration and dancing from the start is repeated at the finale. After seeing the hardship and trauma during the show, it’s not entirely clear why the production ends on this note. When I asked Kwei-Armah about this ending later via Instagram (as you do), his response was “Lol. The coming together of family. I think. Lol”. That’s one way to think of it. But it’s quite easy to argue that by the end there is nothing really worth celebrating and dancing about.

Overall my feelings on the show are mixed because it was the subject of quite a public dispute. Writers Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin claimed in their blogpost titled Tree. A story of gender and power in theatre, that they were pushed out of the writing team although they originally conceived the show.

Up until the pair spoke out, the show was billed as a creative collaboration between Idris Elba and the Young Vic’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and it still is described in this way on promotional materials. Elba and Kwei-Armah have since put out their own public responses to the blog on their Twitter pages (inaccessible if you use assistive technology). Their responses challenge and undermine Henley’s and Allen-Martin’s version of events. At the time of writing, it doesn’t look like the matter has been satisfactorily resolved and it’s not clear if it ever will be.

However, this debate didn’t turn audiences away from the show. The show opened to a series of positive reviews and during closing night, the theatre was packed and there was a long winding line for the returns queue. If it weren’t for being offered a ticket last minute, I probably wouldn’t have gone.

In most reviews, there were passing references made to the show’s controversy but they mostly focussed on the production in isolation. But I don’t think it’s possible to neatly separate how you feel about the show from the way it has been created. Within their blog, Henley and Allen-Martin say that they didn’t like the direction Kwei-Armah took the show and so you can’t help but wonder what would their version have looked like. It feels like there is another version which Henley and Allen-Martin ought to have been a part of and now may never get the chance. There are further intriguing issues with the production which are covered in the New Statesman’s review, which is well worth a read.

So yes it can be said that Kwei-Armah is doing great things as Artistic Director of the Young Vic in bringing stories such as Tree to new audiences. But I wish the development of this production wasn’t so underhanded. In praising the show, it feels like I condone the way that the show has achieved its success. How can you separate the show from its development? That’s a question I’m not quite sure how to answer.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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