Coup Fatal. Photo Chris Van der Burght

Coup Fatal
Photo Chris Van der Burght

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
June 4, 2015

Stuart Sweeney

Alain Platel and his collaborators have pulled off a coup with this show, combining Congolese traditional and pop music and dance with baroque solos for counter-tenor. The genesis was an earlier Platel work, pitié, The St Matthew Passion in a Congolese setting, which featured Serge Kakudji, a fine Congolese counter-tenor, as Jesus. The final performances took place in Kinshasa and local musicians were drafted in for a one-off concert with Kakudji, the baroque and local Congolese music fitting together so well that the Coup Fatal project was born.

The show opens modestly with two musicians: guitarist and band leader Rodriguez Vangama and Bouton Kalanda on likembe, an African hand piano – a wooden board with attached metal tines, played by plucking the tines with the thumbs. The two make a contest, like duelling Banjos from the film Deliverance, each trying to outplay the other with ever trickier variations. Then the rest of the 12-strong band enter and the music swells with Congolese instruments playing arrangements of Monteverdi, Handel, Bach and others. Kakudji’s voice is a revelation: clear and strong and using great arias to express the deep sadness of the conflict in the Congo – the bead curtains at the back of the stage are in fact made from cartridge casings.

As is so often the case with African artists, these musicians are also fine dancers with their extraordinary sense of rhythm carrying across to their movement quality. Tister Ikomo taking breaks from his vibrant xylophone playing to waggle his shoulders and hips to great effect. Little Bouton Kalanda has a mischievous style darting with quick changes of direction around his larger companions.

There are a few caveats. Coup Fatal is also a celebration of the sapeurs – a self-conscious style of smart dressing that originated in Kinshasa in the 1920s and spreading to other parts of Africa. The musicians leave the stage, many having stripped to the waist by this time and return like dandies in bright, sharp clothes, but this section dragged. Also at 90 minutes, an interval would have provided a break to enhance enjoyment of the fine artistry on show. Finally, Rodriguez Vangama’s guitar, excellent player though he is, over dominates the music. From the start I preferred the tones and style of the second guitarist, Costa Pinto, but of the twelve sections of the music, Pinto took centre stage only once. And for a slow duet for Kakudji and balaphone, a small shoulder slung xylophone, the specialist player had to pass his instrument to Vangama to take centre stage yet again. Yes, he is talented, but less would mean more.

At the end, it was clear that few of the audience had any doubts about the merits of Coup Fatal with a standing ovation from the entire house – a rare event at Sadler’s Wells.