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Chiwetel EjioforChiwetel Ejiofor - "A Season in the Congo" Play - Telegraph.co.uk Interview
Wednesday 10 July 2013, by Webmaster
Chiwetel Ejiofor is returning to the London stage for the first time since his triumphant Othello in 2007, playing the doomed Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has played detectives, gangsters, a drag queen and an Othello that captivated the theatre world. But when I meet him in the flesh it is Louis Lester – the jazz musician he played in the recent BBC series Dancing on the Edge – whom he most closely resembles. Character and actor share both a measured charm, and an inscrutability. Dressed in a pale grey jumper and jeans, a cap that comes off as he greets me, Ejiofor is polite, self-deprecating – and a master of the careful response.
That Othello, which he performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, put Ejiofor, now 35, in the front rank of British actors. He had already impressed with a series of stage and screen roles but his Othello astonished audiences and critics alike. It won him an Olivier Award for leading actor, beating both Ian McKellen’s King Lear and Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, and an OBE followed months later. Critics called it ‘superb’, ‘dignified’, and reminiscent of ‘a great and noble building being destroyed by a wrecker’s ball’. But the weight of the role’s significance doesn’t stop Ejiofor confessing, early in our conversation over lunch in a London hotel, that towards the end of the run he was frequently ‘having random thoughts about whether someone had managed to get tickets, or whether they’re in the house – just as I was killing Desdemona’. He laughs, an expression that engulfs his face, before teasing out a meaning to the lapses. That may be symptomatic of being in control of what you’re doing; the point when the role has become part of you.’
The next role to ‘become part of’ him is that of the doomed Congolese businessman Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo, a play by Aimé Césaire at London’s Young Vic theatre. It marks his ‘nerve-racking’, much-anticipated return to theatre for the first time since Othello. The play deals with the civil war that erupted out of Congo’s first stuttering weeks of independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba, who had risen from eloquent beer salesman to the country’s first prime minister of the new regime, attempted to introduce socialist ideas to Congo, but his efforts ended in military conflict and his own murder. In January 1961 he was shot by his Congolese enemies, or possibly by the Belgians supporting them, and later dismembered and dissolved in acid. The CIA and the British have been rumoured to have been involved in his assassination.
In March Ejiofor – along with the play’s director, Joe Wright, and the Young Vic’s artistic director, David Lan – visited Congo for a week-long fact-finding trip and to meet members of Lumumba’s family. Ejiofor, who was born in 1977 to Nigerian parents in Forest Gate, London, has been to Africa often, and numerous times to Nigeria, but never before visited what is arguably its most troubled state. ‘The trip itself was an extraordinary time,’ he says. ‘I knew a little about Congo, and you occasionally read bits in the paper about violence happening in the Eastern Kivu region. But really when you get there, the people in the east are living in the most extraordinary conditions. The M23 [rebel] forces have now gone back into the region and every time they do that they displace thousands of people – two million in all at the moment. And the displaced people’s camps that I went to are some of the bleakest things I’ve ever witnessed.
‘I was talking to a woman at one of them,’ he continues. ‘When the rebels came, they killed three of her children and she took her remaining child and went on the run for eight months, before she found a camp where there was water and sanitation.’
He also visited Lumumba’s house, where his family still live and which has been preserved in much the same state as it was in the 1960s. ‘I was in the study where he formed his government. The only discernible difference was there was a Dell laptop on the desk.’ Lumumba’s widow was ‘really friendly and graceful’. ‘She is pleased we’re doing the play – all his family were. She hopes it will recapture some of the energy of that time.’ Both Lumumba’s sons are politicians: ‘They admire their father but question some of what he thought’.
The play, written in 1966, is a Brechtian wail of grief over the loss of the brief chance the country once possibly had, and seemingly has never had since, to place government of the country in the hands of the people rather than a corrupt oligarchy. Joe Wright tells me that Ejiofor read the entire play to him one night by Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, as a storm was coming in over the water. ‘That was an experience I will never forget,’ Wright says. ‘The performance was so impassioned; the play is so impassioned. Chiwetel has a great intelligence and a beautiful soul; he was very clearly the person to play this role. He is one of the greatest actors of his generation.’
Césaire, both poet and political activist himself, saw Lumumba as a martyr to democracy, destroyed by the machinations of the West and Lumumba’s own erstwhile friend, the future dictator Mobutu. But, Ejiofor says, the people he met on his trip to Congo feel more ambivalent about their short-lived leader. ‘They consider him heroic, but they also consider him naive,’ he says. ‘What did he achieve? He got himself killed trying to be a socialist. This other guy comes along who is an individualist capitalist thinker and he rules the country for 30 years. Even though they hate what Mobutu has done to the country they have a grudging respect for this man who managed to play the game.’
While Césaire gives Lumumba a messianic quality in his play, Ejiofor is keen ‘to bring out in the text where it is actually more complicated, how some of the choices that he made helped lead to his downfall.’ This is what Stephen Frears (who directed Ejiofor in his breakthrough lead in 2002 as the sad-eyed doctor Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things, a dark, much-admired portrait of the London underworld) describes as Ejiofor’s ability to ‘edge subtly into the nuance beneath the nuance’.
‘If you’re looking at people like Patrice Lumumba,’ Ejiofor says, ‘you are looking at people who had a very definite plan and events overran them. It’s harder to find those people now in Africa, those equivalents, the idealists.’ His voice drops a register. ‘People like my father.’
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s father, Arinze, had been a well-known musician and pop singer in Nigeria; his wife, Obiajulu, and his mother were his backing singers. Arinze and Obiajulu came to Britain in the late 1960s, fleeing the Biafran war. Arinze then trained as a doctor so he could be sure of providing fully for his family (Chiwetel is his second son, and there are two much younger sisters). Obiajulu became a pharmacist.
But Arinze, Ejiofor says, never dropped his link with Nigeria and his relationship with the community there – his parents were part of the Igbo tribe from the south-east of the country who suffered particularly in the Biafran conflict – and returned every year to help at a grassroots level. It was on one of these philanthropic trips that a lorry ploughed into Arinze’s car and he died, aged 39. Chiwetel, then 11, was also in the car. The crash left him in a coma, he spent 10 weeks in hospital and as a result he is permanently scarred on his forehead.
Ejiofor’s keen not to exaggerate the trauma of the loss of his father – ‘I think I have a constant reflective relationship with him, but don’t we all have that to some extent with people we have lost?’ But he knows his life is marked by his father’s influence. This ranges from the love of Shakespeare he learnt from Arinze, who particularly adored the sonnets, to his current interest on work with a focus on Africa. ‘As I get closer to the age he was when he died, the relationship is becoming more acute. But I do think there’s a constant dynamic that will continue always; and be an influence on the kind of work I do.’
Later this year, in a film already made, he stars in another piece about Africa, an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun that was filmed in Nigeria and is about the Biafran war itself. ‘Chimamanda’s version of the war was so close to what my grandfather had told me about, it brought tears to my eyes,’ he says. ‘I know my father would be really interested in the kind of topics I’m working on now; this kind of politics and the conversations around it. Perhaps proud.’
Arinze’s death meant Obiajulu had to bring up her children largely on her own. Working all hours at the pharmaceutical business she and her husband had set up, she scraped together the money to send her children to private school. Ejiofor joined his brother at Dulwich College in south London. The school has an excellent drama department and there he caught the acting bug playing parts such as Angelo in Measure for Measure. ‘I loved reading when I was young,’ he recalls. ‘I was just completely taken by stories. And I remember taking that into English literature at school and taking that into Shakespeare and finding that opened up a whole world of self-expression to me that I didn’t have access to previously.’
He admits there were plenty of fellow students who loved Shakespeare who weren’t good at acting, but for him it ‘just connected somehow’, he says. ‘I was able to go on stage and work until it felt right or felt good. It meant that I very quickly realised that it was the job for me.’
The National Youth Theatre followed at 17, and then a scholarship to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Aged 19 and only three months into his course, Ejiofor was chosen by Steven Spielberg to play a small part in the slavery epic Amistad. But Ejiofor chose not to stay in America and chase a film career, instead returning to London where he focused on theatre. The high point of a spell with the National Theatre was an electrifying turn as a schizophrenic in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange in 2000. And a couple of years later the film world sat up and took note of his performance in Dirty Pretty Things.
A cluster of brilliantly executed ensemble roles have followed, among them a wise, sympathetic Thabo Mbeki in Endgame (2009), Paula Milne’s film about the negotiations to end apartheid, and the strange, tortured detective Jonah Gabriel in Hugo Blick’s BBC thriller The Shadow Line (2011).
As in his portrayals of Okwe and Mbeki and, of course, Othello, Ejiofor specialises in seeking out the hard-won nobility in the characters he plays, which can make his performances piercingly moving. He is also frequently praised for his stillness. ‘I think nearly all great leading actors are still,’ Stephen Poliakoff, who directed Ejiofor in Dancing on the Edge, says. ‘They don’t fidget, they don’t over-emote. Chiwetel has that to a wonderful degree; it pulls you towards him.’ The stillness is there in real life as well; he leans forward as he talks, intent and absorbed.
Ejiofor decamped to Hollywood a few years ago, and uses LA as his main base, but has kept a house in central London. When he makes films in the US he sticks, in the main, with the best directors, working with Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Spike Lee (Inside Man) and Ridley Scott (American Gangster), among others.
He admits to feeling ambivalent now about life in California. ‘I enjoyed being in California for a while,’ he says. ‘But that’s the thing about London: you can’t really shake it. I’ve always had the impression when I was in LA for long periods of time that simultaneously my life was happening somewhere else, and I’m missing it.’
He remains unpredictable in the roles he chooses, and – with the possible exception of the thrillers Salt and 2012 – out of the mainstream. He is currently working on the screenplay for a film adaptation of a memoir by William Kamkwamba, a man from an impoverished farming family in Malawi who, aged 14, provided his family with electricity by building his own windmill from instructions he found in a library book. This Ejiofor will direct, but not perform in.
Then there’s the second film Ejiofor has coming out this year, 12 Years a Slave, the true story of a free black man, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), who was kidnapped and enslaved in Louisiana in 1841 – it took him 12 years to escape. It is the third movie from the British director Steve McQueen, who is famous for his gruelling depictions of extreme human states in his films Hunger (in which Michael Fassbender lost three stone to play the Irish republican dissident Bobby Sands), and Shame, about a sex addict (again played by Fassbender). Both Hunger and Shame wowed art house audiences but proved too defiantly difficult for America audiences to love. ‘Intense’ is how Ejiofor describes the experience of making 12 Years a Slave. ‘When you go to that place,’ he says, ‘you’re not sure you’re ever going to come back.’
‘Chiwetel’s done a lot of movies in America but he’s really just interested in doing interesting work,’ Poliakoff points out. ‘He doesn’t want to earn lots of money and be in big LA films. He came back here to do The Shadow Line, and now he is doing this play, which is really quite a bold choice. He’s always going to be unpredictable in his choices. People will never be able to go, “There’s another thing by Chiwetel, he’s always the same.” That’s never going to happen.’
Ejiofor is also fiercely private. The closest this serious, soft-spoken man comes to gushing in our conversation is on the subject of his boat. The actor doesn’t believe in taking holidays (in the sense of going away to a foreign country), but he likes to go sailing in California and visit his houseboat when he’s staying in his London flat.
A Dutch barge – an altogether ‘less civilised’ affair than an American sailing boat since ‘there’s always something that needs fixing, and it’s no use in winter’ – it nevertheless offers him one of the great pleasures of his life. ‘In those brief moments when everything is right with the boat,’ he says, ‘I have been able to go down the Thames and travel the canals. And that experience is so beautiful and serene that you’re chasing the moment for ever.’
As his roles to date have indicated, Ejiofor, despite living in LA, isn’t hugely interested in pursuing his own ‘celebrity’. He has both the necessary talent and respect from the industry to achieve superstardom, but ‘I don’t want to be captured in the swell of the machine, when people are viewed as these precious commodities,’ he admits. ‘It’s very hard to live a normal life then – and that’s what I want to do.’
A Season in the Congo opens at the Young Vic on July 16.