Sophie Adnitt reviews The Convert by Danai Gurira now playing at the Young Vic Theatre.
Dubbed by fans as a Black Panther mini-reunion, The Convert, written by the Marvel actress Danai Gurira and featuring her co-star Letitia Wright is undeniably as outstanding in its own right.
The year is 1896, the setting what is modern-day Zimbabwe, and the spirited young Jekesai (Wright) flees an arranged marriage to the employ of Chilford (Paapa Essiedu), a devout Catholic and aspiring priest. Keen to convert Jekesai to his faith, Chilford renames her Ester and soon becomes enraptured by her rapid transformation into his protégée. But Ester’s salvation comes at a price, and all the while the world outside Chilford’s house is rapidly changing with building tensions, whether he’d like it or not.
The play runs for three hours, yet each act seems to hurtle past in minutes. Gurira’s script is full of unpredictable turns, keeping the audience mesmerised throughout, the only interruptions are the audible reactions the story prompts. From groans and shocked gasps to laughter – there is a lot of unexpected humour in this play, and tone turns on a pinpoint from amusing to severe with no warning. Dealing with themes of colonialism, racism, identity, progress, and what really is ‘doing good’, The Convert is not an easy watch, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. Despite its historic setting, there are startling flashes of modern relevance, prompting strong murmurs of agreement from the audience.
The action is centred around Chilford’s study, placed bang in the middle of the Young Vic auditorium. A limited setting, and yet an entire word is artfully created outside through dialogue alone. This insular world is at first encased in translucent walls, which rise during the performance to grant the audience access. These characters are always being observed by the audience, with nowhere to hide – perhaps much like they are always being observed by their society. Chilford is dubbed a traitor by the people he is trying to convert, but despite his manners and western styling, he will never be European enough for his white superiors.
As Chilford, Essiedu is extraordinary. His physicality is fully realised from the moment he walks in, straight-backed, arms clamped strict to his sides – even his feet are neatly placed together whenever he stands still. In the hands of a lesser actor, Chilford could easily become the villain of the piece, but Essiedu encapsulates a man conflicted and complex, caught between the pressures of aspiration and expectation. As his associate Chancellor, Ivanno Jeremiah also presents a multifaceted portrayal of a character difficult to warm to with fantastic vocal clarity.
Letitia Wright also utilises incredible physicality as she transforms from Jekesai to Ester, from loose-limbed, and expressive to upright and still. A remarkable talent, Wright appears totally at home onstage, and even when motionless draws the audience attention. As the educated Prudence, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is nothing short of extraordinary. A layered and complicated performance, Lewis-Nyawo encapsulates so many levels of pain and restrained rage. Like Chilford, she is unwillingly trapped between two worlds, again never enough of either side to be accepted. Prudence is one hell of a role, and Lewis-Nyawo nearly steals the scene whenever she appears, through muted, simmering fury and acidic humour.
It is so rare to come across a cast who are all, without exception, amazing – not a weak link nor stumble between them. Wright and Essiedu are both incredible, but so are all of their fellow actors. Pamela Nomvete, Rudolphe Mdlongwa and Jude Akuwudike too are all immensely powerful as Jekesai’s relatives trying to resist her conversion.
An exceptional combination of top quality acting and thrilling writing, resulting in an astounding piece of theatre. I could not find a flaw if I wanted. Five stars, and richly deserved – this is the kind of theatre that London needs.
Until 26 January 2019
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