‘They Drink It In The Congo’ reunites playwright Adam Brace with director Michael Longhurst, who last teamed up on the well-received Iraq War-set ‘Stovepipe’ (2009). Originally commissioned by the National Theatre and developed at the NT Studio, their latest collaboration, set in London and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is staged in-the-round at the Almeida, and was anticipated to be in safe hands by the mainstream media.
TBB attended knowing that there was some serious established and emerging black British talent in the cast: Richie Campbell (Luis), Sule Rimi (Oudry), Richard Pepple (Victor), Anna Maria Nabirye (Anne-Marie), Sidney Cole (Maurice/ Pastor Joshua), Tosin Cole (William/ Samo/ Oliver/ Kevin), Joan Iyiola (Kat/ Alice/ Patience/ Suzanne), and Pamela Nomvete (Nou Nou/ Ira/ Mama Beatrice).
Highly-strung Stef (Fiona Button), Kenyan-born to a wealthy white farmer now working in London, is willingly tasked with raising awareness of the war atrocities in the DRC. The event is to be ‘Congo Voice’ - a festival celebrating the country through music, song, dance and spoken word. Stef pulls together a planning committee consisting of rival colleague Jenny (Kirsty Besterman), Huw (Roger Evans) and PR specialist (also ex-boyfriend, still carrying a torch), Tony (Richard Goulding). Insisting that it must be made up of at least one third Congolese, she recruits colleague and Congo National Anne-Marie (Nabirye), several other Congolese and one Sudanese.
It all seems straightforward until the first meeting, when Stef reveals that they must avoid making any explicit political statements. The event will be “a festival to help Congo which can’t say what’s wrong with Congo”. This particularly stirs up the menacing anti-DRC-government militia group, Les Combattants de Londres, against the festival. They accuse the West of supporting the President’s brutal regime and they believe the festival condones the President. At the mere mention of Les Combattants, several Congolese committee members abandon the meeting.
Things go from bad to worse, as Stef becomes ever more frantic to stage the event, cycling through earnestness, self-importance, despair and desperation in the face of Les Combattants making threats; a poor showing of London-based Congolese artists, which does include an excellent trio (Joseph Roberts, Alan Weekes and Crispin Robinson) who play original music inspired by the region; and the white corporate sponsors, reluctant to have any Congolese planning input at all, inevitably losing patience with everyone. There are some funny moments and some clever dialogue, but, the humour is mainly limited to the first half. Goulding’s Tony carries most of the light relief and he does so admirably. Brace even manages a light moment at Les Combattants HQ, involving the making of a video message to the President.
Some interesting creative choices have been made here. The African characters speak in accented English, switching to plain English to represent speaking in their native Lingala or Swahili, which appear as scrolling surtitles above the stage. It works. The superbly versatile Sule Rimi, he of the joyous pink suit in the poster, prowls the stage, a declarative, yet ethereal ringmaster of sorts. He is absolutely rivetting throughout, representing the several faces of Congo and what is really at the heart of this play and haunts the gradually unravelling Stef.
Some have described it as guilt – Stef’s ‘white guilt’ over a brief and impotent experience on volunteering to help aid workers in the DRC years before; of ‘colonial guilt’ – there is none here; and of ‘survivor guilt’ – both Stef’s and the London Congolese, who have escaped to relative safety. It is staged to look more like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, as happens here, worsens if not dealt with. However, if it is PTSD, it suggests the most disturbing thing about this play – that Stef, having only witnessed the aftermath of a brutal attack, deserves to have her story told over the possibly more traumatised Congolese who lived through numerous of those same attacks and worse, who might have been forced to commit atrocities themselves and watch loved ones die. The play acknowledges such incidents, but, extraordinarily, never ventures to consider the victims in the aftermath of those horrific experiences or their motivation for acting as they do! Most of the African characters feel poorly drawn, under-developed, and pretty insubstantial. The 8 black British cast members, playing some 17 different characters, admirably do as much as they can with the material.
But, the apparent disregard for the worth of the African characters is evident in Stef’s frustration when Congolese begin to pull out, portrayed as easily frightened and fickle. It is evident as she recklessly pushes on, trying to save the festival motivated by an ulterior motive. It is most evident when, finally attempting to assuage her escalating anxiety, she goes in search of the object of her neurosis. She then crosses a line of decency in her perverse request, in my opinion, reducing the physically and psychologically devastating experience of another to a quick remedy for her ills. She is altruism wrapped up in the exact opposite – self-interest, and it is at the expense of the issues the play apparently seeks to highlight.
Richie Campbell, as leader of Les Combattants, Luis, gives an outstanding performance, delivering a powerful, disconcerting monologue on the crimes and collusion of the West in the oppression and suffering of the Congolese people. Nabirye’s Anne-Marie has a small parallel storyline, but it really is lost in the increasing chaos of Stef’s predicament.
The only person who really seems to go on a journey is Tony (Goulding). Representing, I suppose, British complacency, he has the misfortunate of getting involved with something he knows very little about, except, he admits, “I know what they drink…” Despite having to deliver that line, Goulding manages to hold on to your empathy. What starts as a way to spend time with Stef actually does open his eyes to what it all should have been about. He is cognizant of the effect Stef’s plans are having on all around her – especially the Congolese.
Almeida’s Artistic Director Rupert Goold introduced this, and several other new plays as, “… urgent and anarchic… about the increasingly small, fragmented world we live in. Playful in approach and epic in form, they take us on international journeys, exploring our dependency on limited resources and the costs of modern living.” He invites audiences to come along and meet the “… vivid, subversive spirit of the characters that will be seen on the Almeida stage this year.” Many of the mainstream reviews agree, applauding this play’s cleverness.
This might be a good time to remember the infamous photograph by tragic South African photojournalist Kevin Carter during the 1993 famine in Sudan. A starving child struggles toward a UN food camp as a vulture patiently awaits her death. He reportedly took 20 minutes to frame up the shot before waving the bird away. He came under heavy criticism for ‘not helping’ after it was published in the New York Times and the question as to whether the little girl reached the food camp remained unanswered by the journalist. He didn’t know. However, it also won him the 1994 coveted Pullitzer Prize for feature photography. He had spent years documenting the atrocities of Apartheid, which he vehemently opposed. Yet, just three months after accepting the prize, he committed suicide, aged 33 and with mounting debt. His suicide included the observation, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”
Whilst the writer of this play has piled on the issues and presents the difficulties of raising awareness amongst the British, the lack of substance to most of his African characters relegates these crimes against humanity, and the whole point of writing the play, to a mere backdrop to a Twenty Twelve/W1A style satirical comedy, and that makes it culturally insensitive, full stop. That said, the satire doesn’t seem to survive past the first ⅔ of the first half anyway – almost the demarcation of 2 different plays! With both Aimé Césaire’s 1966 ‘A Season In The Congo’ and Lynn Nottage’s 2007 Ruined so recently staged in London, there were real life and fictional African characters that could have better informed some of the characters in this play.
As for any resonance with the lyrics of one of the most annoying adverts of the 80s (with a cast of cartoon animals, no less), in my mind, it might represent an attempt at the elusive satire – something that the white gaze immediately associates with the Congo, but has absolutely nothing to do with the Congo or its troubles. I am inclined to think it was an ill-judged choice of a title, an ill-judged choice for a satire and, in 2016, an ill-judged focus for the story.
I still urge people to go see this play. If you know nothing of the history of the region, it is a place to start, since there is no obvious poetic license taken with the facts. The staging is clever and highly evocative, if a little difficult to follow at times, and the music is fantastic. The committed cast deserve our support for the excellent work they have produced here, particularly Rimi, Campbell and Goulding. We all applauded with an enthusiastic, well-deserved ovation, allowing the entire cast a couple of bows.
They Drink it In The Congo is booking until October 1st 2016. For tickets, go to The Almedia Theatre website (Click Here)
Review by @ for The British Blacklist