Under the Kunde Tree by Clarisse Makundul. Southwark Playhouse – the Little, 77 Newington Causeway, London SE1 to 17 June 2023. 4****. William Russell.

While we obsess today about the sins of empire as far as our own past is concerned we tend to forget that other European powers also have a past that is far from perfect, especially in Africa, one being Germany, another France. The Cameroons are a case in point. After the First World War the League of Nations gave the mandate to run most of the region to France, a small part in the West being given to the United Kingdom. What followed was a long and bitter struggle for independence. Clarisse Makundul’s play focuses on the role women played and in particular on Sara (Selina Jones) who is torn between observing the traditions of family, which means she is destined to marry someone she does not wish to marry, or breaching them – at her peril – and marrying the man she wants. The result in terms of physical theatre is stunning. The cast of five – two men, three women – create powerful images of the brutality of war, of the way father and daughter fall out which are deeply moving and hard to watch at times. It is all done with four chairs and performed on a small grassy knoll with the audience on four sides. The problem, for me at least, comes when the arguments rage and the accents of the actors prove a barrier – there were times when I at least had no idea what they were saying. The evening cried out for surtitles. It is no reflection on the actors who deliver powerful and moving performances, especially from the statuesque Selina Jones who as Sara is at the heart of the tale and Yinka Awoni as her father. Director Ebenezer Bamgboye has moulded them into a seamless ensemble and secured fine performances all round but there is – for me, but not for all the press night audience – a language barrier. It is at its most intrusive when the arguments rage and all the player are shouting at the same time. The play also provides an insight into a past that British audiences know little or nothing about – our part in the independence struggle was small, the rapes, the torture, the violence, the exploitation by their European masters lay much more with the Germans and then the French who controlled the region. In 1960 French Cameroon got its independence and in October the following year the British mandated territory voted to join it.

Selina Jones – Sara; Fode Simbo – Jean; Amma-Afi Osei – Nadia; Yinka Awoni – Pa; Ckarisse Makundul – Woman.

Director – Ebenezer Bamgboye; Set & Costume Designer – Niall McKeever; Lighting & video Designer – Arnim Friess; Sound Designer – Max Pappenheim; Movement Director – Rose Ryan. Production photographs – Steve Gregson.

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