One can only applaud the writer’s desire to cram as much detail and confronting discomforting arguments into They Drink It In The Congo, but at points the research stands out ahead of the incarnation of the drama, and a more selective approach might yield more lastingly influential results.
They Drink It In The Congo. Or rather they don’t. The title itself, with its reference to a notorious long-ago advert for a fruit drink, sets in motion one of the major themes of the play – the disjunction between Congolese realities and Western perceptions, based as they mostly are on ignorance, half-truths, or a deliberate wishing away of the problems.
This new play by Adam Brace tries to do too much, and even if it fails in its present form, faltering under the weight of its competing ambitions, it deserves both qualified admiration and a future.
The problem it starts from is that we are both implicated in what goes on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and yet profoundly unaware of it. So much of the ease of our technology relies on minerals acquired from a country as rich in resources as it is impoverished in legitimate uncorrupted institutions. Yet we do not know this, and do not acknowledge the lawlessness of its forty rival militias and the regular rape and pillage of the population as particularly our problem.
The play tries to raise our awareness by an approach on a broad front. The basic framework is provided by the organization of a London-based and Parliament-sponsored festival called ‘Congo Voice’ which is largely the creation and initiative of an ambitious NGO official, Stef, who is driven by unresolved trauma from a previous visit to the region.
We move through a series of committee meetings that expose not only Western prejudice and ignorance, but with admirable even-handedness, the petty personal jealousies and squabbling that bedevil diaspora communities and NGO administrations. This section of the play focuses on the ultimately unresolvable question of whether a festival largely designed by Western voices is validated by the longer-term raising of consciousness (and funding) it creates, even if that is at the expense of disempowering or minimally empowering those who represent its subject.
This would actually be more than enough material for a play in itself, but the dramatist decides that further strands are needed, perhaps because a series of committee meetings is hard to bring to sustained dramatic life (Wilde’s line about the problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings comes to mind here!).
So as well we explore the impact of death threats and direct action by a dissident group determined to derail the festival, the conflicting between political action and the demands of family life, and a detailed, necessarily horrific flash-back to the events in the DRC that changed Stef’s life.
Linking them is a shaman-like master of ceremonies who is invisible to the characters – wearing an impossible magenta suit as festival garb for the first half – who then re-emerges as the central figure in the scene of violence in the DRC. The action becomes most diffused as the second half runs into a series of auditions for the festival acts, an effective satire of the criterion of authenticity that the organisers strive for, but rather too extended for the play as a whole.
That in the end is the problem. Each of the scenes can be justified in its own right and many are memorable in both high seriousness and roistering humour. However, in the arc of the play as a whole there is just too much material and too little overall coherence.
One can’t help thinking a more workshopping with a dramaturg would have produced both less and more. There is too much telling and not enough showing, with all the valuable economy of communication that this would bring with it.
There are really too many characters in the large cast for all of them to register with equal weight, but the actors and director Michael Longhurst deserve great credit for their unflagging technical bravura and creative invention. There is always something interesting to look at, inventive business to watch, and detailed acting to observe even when the text is thin.
Fiona Button as Stef is involved in most scenes and makes the most of what is effectively the lead role. She has to register and then present to the audience a very wide range of emotions and reactions, and this is done effectively even though the character does not really grow in maturity and remains a tad unlikeable.
In some ways her former partner Tony (Richard Goulding) is a fuller written part, and he has some of the very best scenes of the play in which his PR-man’s glibness is eroded, and we see and learn with him collectively embedded in the action. There should be more of this.
Richie Campbell as Papa Luis, the lead extremist, has some powerful scenes that combine both menace and unintended comedy to good effect, and Anna-Maria Nbirye gives a richly detailed, truly humane performance as the moderate activist who tries to keep the hopes of the festival and of Congolese reconciliation alive.
Dominating proceedings as the elusive MC, Oudry, Sule Rimi gives a superb display of charismatic acting and movement. He both supervises and channels the energy of the play in all its phases. No performances disappoint in what is a fine ensemble production.
The play is presented in the round with a wide range of special effects in sound and lighting and a set that holds plenty of surprises as it shifts us from London to DRC and back.
We also benefit from several foot-tapping interventions from an excellent three-piece band, though all that aspect seems a bit self-indulgent in the end.
There is a certain amount of tricksiness involved as if the director feels he needs to compensate for the structural weaknesses of the text. Do we need mobile phones and i-pads studded with nails? Wouldn’t it be simpler and more effective to have the flashback sequence nearer the start and go for a more traditional narrative?
One can only applaud the writer’s desire to cram as much detail and confronting discomforting arguments into his play, but at points the research stands out ahead of the incarnation of the drama, and a more selective approach might yield more lastingly influential results.