When we finally get into the venue for Idris Elba's much hyped 'Tree' the atmosphere is a strange mix of full-on rave and British awkwardness, as some people dance on the stage in the middle of the room whilst other audience members stand around looking rather unsure of themselves. Did we just walk into an illegal warehouse rave or did we miss the beginning of the show? Thankfully as the real show begins the awkwardness eases, although the raving doesn't...
My first time dancing in front of a room full of strangers stone cold sober was actually surprisingly fun. With 10 minutes to kill before the play supposedly started and the stage already full of moving bodies we figured if you can't beat them, join them! So in the full spirit of reviewing (just for you!) we got up there and danced with the cast and audience, with attached picture of our awkward dancing as proof.
Then suddenly we were all being ushered off stage and the cast was left dancing alone. The play had begun, and the dancing segued into a piece that was intense, transformative and explored deep issues of love, loss and identity.
The acting from Sinéad Cusack and Alfred Enoch is the best I've seen all weekend, ensuring the characters live up to the stereotypes of white South African land owner and immigrant who has lost his roots, yet also giving their respective parts depth and personal details that allow you to connect with them and care about their lives.
Sinéad Cusack plays Kaelo's South African Aunt, born and raised on the same farm in South Africa and yet by her very ownership of the land she is covered in the blood of those from whom the land was taken. Enter Enoch's vibrant and divisive sister who forces the audience to consider the effect of British settlers in South Africa head on, even whipping up a protest (in which members of the audience hold signs) condemning Mandela and his actions.
The play takes place not only on the stage but in and around the audience, seamlessly crossing the fourth wall whilst still maintaining the magical entrancement that happens when watching a good play. The audience become everything from anti-Mandela protestors to witnesses of terrible anti-white violence, forcing us to think about the complex racial issues that occurred and continue to occur in South Africa today.
As well as the unusual way the action took place throughout the audience and venue, 'Tree' also broke other conventual theatre rules with a fusion of traditional scenes interspersed with more manic rave tunes and dancing, as well as dream sequences where sound was bounced between speakers all over the room. I really enjoyed how the performance didn't feel the need to conform to one genre or set of conventions, as the deeper issues explored lent itself to the way the performance twisted and turned through bright, happy dancing to darker, shadowy dreaming.
The whole performance ended with another round of dancing under a sort of tree erected by a combination of audience and cast, giving the feeling of a strange, ethereal rave where people would see spirits and suddenly sprout wings. Definitely a strange way to end the show as you dance next to Kaelo clutching his Mother's ashes and the (supposedly) dead characters from the play, but after a pint of cider everyone went with the flow and I left the venue feeling energised and excited about the performance that I felt like we had all been a part of.
Overall 'Tree' has been my favourite of the Manchester International Festival for sure, fusing mediums and genres seamlessly in a way which helps us explore the complex themes of identity and race from all angles. It was impossible not to feel like part of the play and you leave feeling excited yet thoughtful, and for me there is no better way to end the night.