John Kani & Robert Whitehead in a thinking person’s play

Artlooks & Artlines is a monthly column written by Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.

In June this year, an opulent 187-year-old mansion in France belonging to King Leopold II of Belgium went on sale for a whopping $410 million. The 14-bedroom villa, which has an Olympic-size swimming pool and is set in a glamorous coastal enclave close to Nice, is considered to be the ‘world’s most expensive house’ and was built for the King of Belgium using his profits from land-grabs in the Congo. Close neighbours of the palatial home include British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the late US tech-tycoon Paul Allen.

Market Theatre CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II John Kani Robert Whitehead Lesedi Job
John Kani, Robert Whitehead and Lesedi Job. PHOTO Thandile Zwelibanzi

     In December last year, student activists at the Queen Mary University of London tore down two plaques commemorating a visit to the British university by King Leopold II of Belgium. Students claimed that the plaques were offensive to ethnic minority students because they ‘pay homage to a genocidal colonialist’ and should be removed. The 19th-century monarch visited it in 1887 when he laid the University’s library’s foundation stone.
     If King Leopold II were alive today, there is no doubt that he would be on trial at The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity for his exploits in the Congo at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2005, Belgium’s Africa Museum, which was founded by King Leopold II and which, for a century, had neglected to tell the story of his rule, hosted an academic conference in order to ascertain the ‘historic truth’ behind Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, a haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains.

Market Theatre CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II John Kani Robert Whitehead Lesedi Job
John Kani and Robert Whitehead. PHOTO Thandile Zwelibanzi

     Veteran South African actors John Kani and Robert Whitehead have come together at the Market Theatre to star in a gut-wrenching political thriller, CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II, directed by award-winning director Lesedi Job. Adapted from Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy about his defence for his Congo rule, the script has been developed by Kani, Whitehead and Job with financial support from the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.
     CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II is an imagined encounter between Advocate Xola Mlambo (Kani) and King Leopold (Whitehead) about the 23-year rule of the Congo by King Leopold II. During this period, more than 10 million Africans were massacred without him even setting foot in the Congo.
     Under his rule, the Congo Free State, suffered a decline in population from 20 million to 10 million as his colonial agents implemented a brutal regime of forced labour. Belgian agents would enter a village and hold the women and children hostage until the men would head into the forest, find rubber trees, tap them, and return with superhuman quotas of sap. Many were worked to death, or else killed. If agents killed those held to ransom, they might chop off their hands, to prove that the bullets used hadn’t been wasted on game.

Market Theatre CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II John Kani Robert Whitehead Lesedi Job
John Kani, Robert Whitehead and Lesedi Job. PHOTO Thandile Zwelibanzi

     If you were King Leopold II how would you structure your defence? Are the numbers of people who were massacred exaggerated? Did they die from other causes? Was King Leopold II even aware that he ordered such barbaric acts? With Kani in the role of Advocate Xola Mlambo and Whitehead as King Leopold II, the tragedy of the Congo – too long forgotten – is brought into our consciousness with great power and compassion.
     This deeply moving portrait brings to life this largely untold story about an African holocaust with wit and skill to expose these crimes against humanity articulated in Hochschild’s book. On stage together at the Market Theatre for the first time since the 1980s, these two theatre titans immerse themselves in an emotional and heart-wrenching performance that is given volume and credibility through an added local angle.
     CONGO The Trial of King Leopold II is a powerful re-imagination of the terror reigned over an African nation. This is the thinking person’s kind of theatre production and could not be left in finer hands than the trio of multi-award-winning stars John Kani, Robert Whitehead and Lesedi Job. The show is currently on at the Market Theatre until 11 November 2018.