Bush Theatre, London – until 7 August 2021
The lava in the title of Benedict Lombe’s new, fierce, autobiographical play is anger. It flows over the stage, filling the crevasses of the set, and through Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s smouldering performance, which soon bursts into flame.
The anger is kindled, initially, by bureaucracy – an annoying passport anomaly – but something apparently insignificant unravels a history of flight, from Congo to South Africa to Ireland to, eventually, the UK. The experience of Lombe’s family, is of being persecuted, whether by the dictator Mobutu, in the aftermath of Belgian genocide in the Congo, or by everyday racism in the streets of Britain and Ireland.
Anger at persistent, systemic racism and the crimes of colonialism has been unavoidable over the last two years. A movement has arisen, showing many people that a world they thought they understood is not what they imagined, and that under the surface of settled, western countries lie deep strata of prejudice and exploitation. The monologue has also become a very familiar format, for unavoidable reasons.
However, Lombe’s work does not feel familiar, nor does it seem forced into this form. It feels deeply personal and unresolved, it feels important and urgent, and it feels new. Adékoluẹjo’s performance is exceptionally powerful and engaging. She draws the audience into her story in something of a tour de force, holding the stage with a natural ease for 80 minutes. Director Anthony Simpson-Pike fills the stage with his one performer, creating a production that feels like a show, not a monologue.
However, Lombe’s play becomes something greater than the sum of its parts when, near the end, Adékoluẹjo steps back and we hear directly from the author. Lombe herself appears on film, questioning the medium she is using to tell her story, the status of experiences as entertainment and, memorably, taking an unnamed Times reviewer to task for their description of an earlier piece as ‘more lecture than theatre’.
How, asks Lombe, are black people supposed to tell their stories? Where is the space, neither theatre nor lecture hall, where they can expect to be heard? It is a powerful question and a theatrical coup, in which Lombe successfully undermines the expectations of her audience, and leaves them questioning their assumptions. Lava is a powerful play, from an author we need to hear, and a theatre that knows what needs to be staged.