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The Convert review at the Gate Theatre, London – ‘richly written, captivatingly performed’

Stefan Adegbola and Mimi Ndiweni in The Convert at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

On one level Danai Gurira’s The Convert plays out like a twisted reworking of Pygmalion. A man reshapes a young girl, putting words in her mouth and ideas in her head. But this is only one strand of Gurira’s richly written play about the complexities of colonialism and impact of the Church on African identity.

Gurira’s powerful and humane 2009 play Eclipsed received its UK premiere at London’s Gate Theatre in 2015. Her 2012 play The Convert is a similarly impressive and ambitious piece of writing, set in the 1890s in the town of Salisbury, in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe.

As with Eclipsed, which was set during the Liberian civil war, The Convert deals with its subject with delicacy, intelligence and nuance. Mimi Ndiweni’s Jekesai avoids an arranged marriage by going to live in the home of Chilford, an upright African Roman Catholic who has hopes of becoming a priest. He soon has her wearing European dress and quoting scripture. He insists she abandon her ‘pagan’ ways; he renames her Ester.

Understandably there is resistance to Chilford’s attempts to teach the ‘savages’ how to live, how to dress, and how to worship, to decree who they can marry. The native population regard him as a traitor. Violence is inevitable and Jekesai is caught in the middle. But Gurira continually avoids moral simplification. Cultural erasure is entangled with opportunity, educational, financial, material.

The characters are all vividly drawn. Ndiweni is a radiant presence, her eyes vast when she first enters Chilford’s world, sniffing at the concrete floor suspiciously; she seems to grow in stature and strength as the play progresses.

There’s a linguistic richness to the writing too. Chilford and his friend Chancellor affect a European manner and turn of phrase, but certain figures of speech trip them up. Gurira exploits the comic potential of this while making wider points about the relationship between language and identity.

Joan Iyiola’s Prudence is a similarly fascinating figure, a proud, poised woman, independent of mind, and better educated than either of the men. She despairs of Jekesai’s passivity. When she realises that this is not enough, it’s haunting to watch – both Ndiweni and Iyiola give captivating performances.

Though the play is traditional in its three act structure and threatens to tip into melodrama on occasion, it wears its research remarkably lightly; it never feels like a lesson, and it grips despite its length. In Jekesai, she has crated a wonderfully rich character, a symbol of a people pulled asunder but also a rounded human being, a gift of a role. The last image of her: owning her body, speaking her name, reclaiming herself,, is incredibly powerful.

Rosie Elnile’s set, with red earth spilling onto the fractured concrete floor, makes effective use of the compact space and the production makes a striking and memorable directorial swansong for Christopher Haydon, as his impressive tenure at the Gate draws to a close.

 

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Verdict
Ambitious and richly written play full of vividly drawn characters, captivatingly performed
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