Under the Kundè Tree - Southwark Playhouse
Tradition and change collide in Clarisse Makundul’s new play
The late 1940s saw the sparks of change in Cameroon, which at the time was divided between the English, French and German colonies. The Cameroonian people had fought and died on behalf of the colonisers in the Second World War but the Allied victory did not signal the end of the oppression. Makundul uses this turbulent history as a backdrop for her play about family, identity and love - a familiar coming-of-age story where tradition and rules fight to accept change. The history is fascinating and terrible but the piece struggles to flesh out the wider context and relationships making it difficult to connect completely to the characters on stage.
Sara does not want to marry the man her father has chosen for her, his decision making swayed by the prospect of a hefty dowry. Instead, she wants to live her life with Jean, a man with meagre means involved in the Cameroon independence movement. Generational clashes occur as the evolving cultures meet, Sara like the rest of her nation, yearns for autonomy and the freedom to make her own choices.
Makundul’s script is surprisingly playful at times, the actors able to express the humanity of the piece beautifully in contrast with the darker themes of oppression. Sara (Selina Jones) and her cousin, Nadia (Amma-Afi Osei) joke together, winding each other up over marriage and children - a mischievous glint in their eyes. Jones is wildly impressive when given the opportunity, bringing a fierce intensity to her performance that is ever so slightly muted by the content of the script. I was left wanting more from her character, a greater understanding of who she is and where she sees her place in the future of her country. This too applies to Fode Simbo’s Jean, who is allowed glimmers of sweet tenderness and consuming fury, as he becomes more involved with the drive for independence against the French but remains underdeveloped as a character.
The piece is wrapped up in impressive physicality, salvaging any space available in the limited playing area. Movement designed by Rose Ryan is brutal and powerful, performed well by the cast, noticeably intense during the uncomfortable scenes of torture or beating - stylised but conveying the weight of the cruelty with ease. On occasion the purpose of the choreographed movement is unclear and the pace stagnates as a result.
The choreography is significantly limited by Niall McKeever’s set design, a lumpy grass hill filling a large proportion of the space - its unevenness adds complications to the movement. Whilst it is aesthetically pleasing it does feel ill-thought-out and frustratingly interrupts the silences when it creaks under the weight of the cast. Hung above the mound, to represent the Kundè Tree, are the various props used in the piece, once again whilst aesthetically pleasing it is distracting and has the annoying effect of blocking sightlines, so we miss moments of emotion and reaction in the actors’ faces. A strong concept with flawed implementation.
This sentiment encapsulates much of the production. There is so much to like, the complicated and uncomfortable aftershocks of the European empires are rich for storytelling but here the delivery stumbles in reaching its potential and more development in the core purpose of the story would be worthwhile. A harsh piece of history that is fairly unknown in this country means this is an important arena to explore and with more work, it will have the power to be educational as well as existing as a profound piece of theatre.
Running until 17 June - Tickets
Photography: Steve Gregson