Review: Under the Kundè Tree, Southwark Playhouse

A searching look at the cost of what it truly means to fight for freedom, Under the Kundè Tree impresses at Southwark Playhouse

“What is independence to you?”

There’s an air of something different about Under the Kundè Tree from the moment you walk into the Little at Southwark Playhouse Borough. Niall McKeever‘s design puts us in the round about an astroturfed mound, Arnim Friess‘ saturated lighting soon kicks in to suggest oppressive heat and and as the company arrive, Rose Ryan’s elegant and deeply expressive movement work ensures we know we sure ain’t in Kansas, we’re in Cameroon.

Clarisse Makundul’s new play explores a hitherto underexplored chapter in international history, the Cameroonian Independence War of the 1950s, one perhaps overlooked due to the simultaneous noisier Algerian War, which also featured an African country seeking to shed the shackles of French colonial control. Makundul further adds interest by viewing the conflict through the eyes of women, presenting a unique perspective of the battle for freedom, both political and personal.

Ebenezer Bamgboye’s production revels in the opportunities presented here. Selina Jones’ Sara sits at the heart of the narrative, a young woman in love with resistance fighter Jean but ordained by her strict father to marry the village chief with his large dowry. Rebelling against her family thus goes hand-in-hand with joining the rising anti-colonial movement in the country and consequently can’t help but result in shocking violence from both her father and the French.

Makundul draws these struggles with a painful but powerful vision, the way in which responsibility falls so heavily on the women left behind by colonial culling of the menfolk is viscerally explored but Bamgboye’s direction finds a carefully creative way in showing the fallout from this violence (though you might not look at a chair in quite the same way for a while). They also poignantly explore the personal cost of pushing so hard against the patriarchy, as much an issue here as the political machinations of nationhood.

Yinka Awoni is superb as Pa, harsh in his determination that he knows best but so much a product of the old order that he can’t see any other way to survive. And Amma-Afi Osei impresses as Sara’s cousin Nadia, presenting another of the ways women could be mistreated in this society, as her husband’s family abandon her after his death, even with such danger around (her vocal contributions add another gorgeous texture to the production). The ending comes a little brutally perhaps, but one is left enthralled by the creative effort and not just a little ashamed that this chapter of history has been so neglected that the war even has the nickname ‘The Hidden War’.

Running time: 90 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Steve Gregson
Under the Kundè Tree is booking at Southwark Playhouse until 17th June

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