The Almeida Theatre is developing a track record for plays that tackle the crisis that is the Congo – a few years ago, it staged the brilliant play, Ruined. And now it returns to the subject with a very different work, ‘They Drink It In the Congo’ by (Adam Brace) – directed by (Michael Longhurst) While ‘Ruined’ tackled the issue of rape in the Congo directly, it is white guilt that is centre stage in this play – though it doesn’t entirely say so on the tin.
Stef (Fiona Button), a charity worker in London is tasked with, or has made it her mission to stage a festival that will raise awareness of the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, following a stint observing the work of aid workers in the troubled country. While she is able to call on a wide roster of involved people including members of the Congolese diaspora, NGOs, and a former lover who also happens to be a somewhat successful PR man, she soon finds the obstacles in her way are a tad more than she bargains for. Weaving in original music and extensive use of Lingala, ‘They Drink it in the Congo’ sets out to examine not so much the crisis in the Congo, so much as ‘the politics of gesture politics’ aimed at getting (western) people to care about issues in faraway and distant lands.
What is a delight is the humour in this play, and the air of farce – which we are introduced to from the beginning; none of the ragtag bunch of characters who traipse in to complicate the staging of the festival escape mockery – be it the infighting amongst the Congolese diaspora or the bitchy status politics of NGO workers jostling to do as much career climbing as much as good. The humour is edged with a darkness that fits the subject matter. (Richie Campbell) Luis, shines as a suitably threatening former militia soldier and petty dictator within the diaspora community. Anna Maria Nabirye gives a strong performance as Anne Marie, a diasporan running her own NGO – though hemmed in by the worthiness of her role. (Suzanne) Mercy Ojelade delivers patiently powerful lines – and forms a quiet emotional anchor in the roles she occupies.
The representation of social media – as well as the spectre of the Congo that haunts Stef – played by (Sule Rimi) is another menacingly humorous addition to the cast – (a neat relationship is drawn – by him at some point – between mobile phones and the Congolese cultural phenomenon of Nkisi – physical objects that through human veneration seem imbued with living souls.) The presence of this ghost as ‘character’ and voice of the media is certainly a deft stylistic choice – that underscores the cultural continuity of Congo’s economic exploitation.
Technically, They Drink it…’ is pleasing – the set design is lively – we are transported to a Congolese mine, a village home – and London offices; the original music by (Michael Henry) while not entirely spot on, does respectfully approximate Congolese styles of recent popular music. Accents do not grate too much – and the interweaving of Lingala into the set design satisfies.
Fiona Button (Stef) and Tony (Richard Goulding) make the most of their central roles, whilst the rest of the cast give energy to dialogue that is sometimes brilliant, but rarely electrifies. For a patient audience though ‘They Drink it in the Congo’ bears rewards. It is really in the second half of this intriguing play that a thorough examination of the terrifyingly, distorted lens of the saviour complex begins to bear fruit – both humorously and painfully. When the end comes, it has the quiet horror of a very public humiliation.
It is a shame that what could have been a more resonant ending is sacrificed for what seems a saccharine, ending of trite symbolism. (Without giving too much away – we get a sound economic critique of the (non) sense of organising a festival to raise awareness of a problem – instead of spending money on addressing the problem from Anna Maria Nabirye (Anne Marie). It is this final critique that leads to both a moral and financial collapse of Stef’s plans – but the audience is absolved from confronting the stark reality of Stef’s motivations by a neat Hollywood ending. It is a psychological pat on the back – and betrays the central premise of the play.
Despite these reservations, its humour and the scarce amount of representation of the Congolese story in which we are all so monumentally complicit – makes ‘They Drink it in the Congo’ an unmissable theatrical event. Perhaps its time The Almeida considers staging a full blown festival of Congolese voices – for the British stage.