An ambitious historical drama that shines an unflinching light on women’s experiences of war, only occasionally struggling to carry the weight of its subject matter.

Credit: Steve Gregson

There’s a huge amount at play in Clarisse Makundul’s visceral and dramatic account of the mid-1950s ‘Hidden’ Cameroonian War of Independence, that weaves the personal with the political to uncover an extremely bloody yet little-known part of colonial history.

Sara (played by a magnificently agile Selina Jones) is caught in an age-old bind, struggling to hold her family’s expectation of who she will marry against what she wants in her heart. As the voice of the Cameroonian People’s Union builds in volume, both she and her countryfolk are inspired to ask for more, and it is not long before the colonising French’s clampdown on the native agitators forces the stakes into a violent new territory. Domestic scenes give way to rallying speeches and physicalised conflict as the bold and shifting story charts the ravages of civil war: violence, racial division, displacement, and tragedy — with no holds barred on depicting bodies thrown together in pain. It’s not even a tragedy. It’s horror, sometimes abject — something which Ebenezer Bamgboye’s heavily theatrical direction centres with raw and visceral physicality.

This isn’t to say that this is a morbid show. Despite its heavy subject matter and abstracted representations of violence, there is at its heart the fullness of humanity. The stories of ordinary struggles against a controlling society — as a woman, as a lover, as an agricultural labourer — are familiar and simple. What is not familiar is the starkness of the violence that follows. The piece is handling big, uncomfortable questions, and while it takes some work to access the historical narrative, once exposed to the characters’ predicaments, the usual preoccupations of modern London life feel incredibly vapid and empty.

Credit: Steve Gregson

The small, raised, grassy island at the centre of Niall McKeever’s set design serves as a platform for the action, forcing the actors to cluster together and creating a sense of the proximity and intensity of these scenes. There’s a pressure here which underscores the closeness of Sara’s relationships with their sister (or friend?) Nadia (Amma-Afi Osei) and lover Jean (Fode Simbo) also throws the women into breathing distance with the soldiers that assault them right before our eyes. This scene is handled cleverly with a canon of chairs and bodies, not shying away from the horror of rape yet creating a distance that allows it to be represented sensitively.

At times the set can feel a little too crowded for the grandeur of the play’s scope, and there are moments where its heavily embedded story required some follow-up research to fully appreciate. But this is what accounts like this are for — to inspire enquiry and awareness. Fortunately, the breadth of its approach and the strength of the acting pulls it through, and there are moments of extreme theatrical daring.

If you aren’t afraid to look at the brutality of history between the eyes, Under the Kundè Tree is a powerful and crafted wake-up call to cultivate an awareness of what horrors have occurred to get the world to where it is now.

An important, if difficult production.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Under the Kundè Tree is on at Southwark Playhouse until the 17th of June – TICKETS AND INFO HERE!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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