Atrocities of an evil king


GHOST in the book cases. Robert Whitehead is King Leopold II. Photo courtesy Market Theatre.

IF A PLAY finds you googling for information, or better still, scrabbling amongst your bookshelves after you’ve seen it, it must have done something right. Congo: The Trial of King Leopold II has a fabulous cast and premises rich with dangerous and interesting promise, that points in the direction of Adam Hochschild’s important 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, but with an undeveloped denouement, it’s a bit of a let-down, aside from Robert Whitehead’s fabulous beard.

King Leopold II of Belgium (Whitehead) was one of those ghastly despots who got away with so much unspeakable brutality during the 19th century, in the name of the acquisition of great personal wealth, rubber and his own kingship. In so many ways, he’s the quintessential evil colonialist who was responsible for the deaths of millions and the mutilations of millions more, and he fits into all the descriptors of a white man who ruled with a lack of empathy and induced flowing blood wherever he went.

In many respects the work promises the kind of moral conundrums in stories such as George Steiner’s The Portage to San Christobal of A.H., which considers what the world would do if Adolf Hitler was found to be alive and elderly, vulnerable and senile. Would the rule of law and prosecution pervade? Would a level of kindness be extended to someone who no longer knows the filth of their misdeeds? Congo doesn’t push far enough into this philosophical challenge.

Similar to Myer Taub’s recent foray into Johannesburg Art Gallery history, with his play, Florence, this work shows a mirror to the terribleness of colonialist rhetoric. Advocate Xola Mlambo (John Kani) is well respected. He seems to be in the throes of packing up a very messy office, and in the process, bumps into the story that got away – the thing that became an academic dissertation for him: Leopold’s unpunished guilt. The hour is late, the boxes are dusty and the ghost pops out of the woodwork.

Does he expect it? Maybe. Mlambo is too unruffled about the opportunity to talk to the quintessence of moral badness. He conducts this mock trial with a cruel ghost who admits to his crimes, as though this is just another day’s work.

It’s a scary enough phantom before the blood on its hands has even been exposed, but its Rasputin-like beard clinches the deal, and saves part of the work in spite of its lack of rhythm and flow, wisdom and a kernel of something whimsical. This suggestion of possibility does, however, get beaten down with other fanciful tricks which bring the message home with a crude obviousness and projected photographs of mutilated children that hurt the texture of the material presented and undermine its potential for subtlety.

  • Congo: The Trial of King Leopold II is adapted from Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy by Lesedi Job, John Kani and Robert Whitehead and directed by Lesedi Job. Performed by John Kani and Robert Whitehead, it features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting effects), Lungile Cindi (set), Onthathile Matshidiso (costumes) and Tanele Dlamini (audio visual), and performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 11. Call 011-832-1641.

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