Young Vic Theatre, London – until 24 August
When it opened at the Manchester International Festival last month, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s highly-anticipated immersive production Tree was marred in controversy over authorship credits – to which both have responded.
It’s now in residence at the Young Vic and interest remains untarnished if the long queue of people waiting for the doors to open is anything to go by.
Tree tells the story of London-born Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) and his journey to scatter his white mother’s ashes in her South Africa homeland. There he meets his white grandmother (Sinead Cusack) and black half-sister (Joan Iyiola) for the first time and sets out to discover what happened to his father.
The play opens with a club DJ playing music from Elba’s own album and the audience is encouraged to dance on the low circular stage among the cast. I did see one couple getting a selfie with Alfred Enoch – not sure if that is in keeping with the character of the piece or not.
The narrative is told through a mixture of dialogue, movement, music, projections and aerial work and while there is much that is atmospheric, effective, powerful and toe-tapping about it if you remove all the frills the story feels unweighted.
The problem is that there is a lot to explore. This isn’t just the story of someone trying to find their roots, it also touches upon the raw and bloody history of apartheid, colonialism and its legacy. But there isn’t enough room – and dialogue – to really give life to these issues and I’ve seen other plays that have done a better job.
Kaelo’s personal story suffers a similar fate with scant detail to add depth to his character. You get hints – he’s split up from his girlfriend and is ‘in-between’ jobs – but other than the fact that we know he doesn’t sleep well, a sole confession to ‘having no-one’ is the closest you get to real insight.
We have been spoiled with great immersive theatre in recent years and comparisons with Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre are inevitable.
New level of immersive theatre
Hytner can be credited with bringing immersive into the mainstream in recent years whereas formally it was a quirk of The Globe and fringe theatre.
Despite having enjoyed immersive theatre at the Bridge I booked seats for Tree – with the option to join those standing.
The view and experience from the balcony were perfectly enjoyable – the actors wander among the entire audience so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
At the Bridge, there is plenty of space for those standing and bits of stage rise up from the floor which means you regularly move and have a changing viewpoint.
Cast members in Tree at Manchester International Festival. At the Young Vic from 29 July to 24 August. Photo: Marc Brenner.
At the Young Vic, there is far less space and as I’m short of stature, I’m not sure how much I’d have seen standing in a crowd – it’s the reason why I decided to stay in my seat.
Where the immersive experience worked was for crowd scenes and demonstrations, the audience becomes sign-wielding protesters and there is also a nice mobile phone light vigil.
Where it doesn’t work so well is in dragging people from the audience on stage to read out a notice or help with decoration.
Patrice Naiambana in Tree at Manchester International Festival. At the Young Vic from 29 July to 24 August. Photo: Marc Brenner.
Audience participation can work in certain contexts but sometimes the awkwardness and embarrassment of those who find themselves on stage can be distracting.
Would the play and experience have lost anything had the audience not been involved at the points? I’m not sure it would.
Much to be applauded
There is much to be applauded and admired in Tree – I particularly enjoyed the movement pieces and there was the start of something really powerful when post-apartheid tensions surfaced in the story.
However, it feels like a play that is more about the spectacle and experience than a substantial exploration of meaty issues which is fine to a point.
It’s 90 minutes without an interval and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half.
Tree is at the Young Vic until 24 August.
Have you seen Tree? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You might also like to read:
Small Island, National Theatre (until 10 August) – epic post-colonial drama.
Fringe review: 7 Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court – a welcome blast of genuine contemporary theatre.
From the archive: It’s been nine years but I still fondly remember After the Dance, National Theatre – and it was before Benedict Cumberbatch went and got really famous.
And if you want another immersive experience then A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August. Read my review here.
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