Professional do-gooder Stefanie Cartwright (Fiona Button) is trying to organise an awareness-raising event about the dire socio-political situation in the DRC. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. From the outset her plans for the ‘Congo Voice’ cultural festival are beset with problems. Community leaders like Anne-Marie (Anna-Marie Nabirye) and Victor (Richard Pepple) are initially sceptical about what appears to be another West-led, hit-and-run humanitarian initiative. Cynical donors sneer at Stef’s attempts to have more Congolese representation on the organising committee. There are myriad, highly sensitive political issues amongst the Diaspora that Stef must negotiate. More worryingly, UK-based Congolese militants Les Combattants de Londres have issued death threats against anyone involved in the festival. Chief instigator Luis (Richie Campbell) is convinced that the event is yet another example of British collusion with a corrupt Congolese government.
Stef is determined to press on against the odds, driven by terrible memories from the time she served with a DRC-based medical charity. Of all the horrors she witnessed, one atrocity torments her more than the rest. Powerless to help in those circumstances, she hopes to make amends through the festival. Yet Stef’s good intentions are also muddied by a guilty conscience over her own family’s dubious colonial past and latent vainglory.
From Anne-Marie’s blunt opening statement about westerners taking a holiday in someone else’s misery, Adam Brace’s ‘They Drink it in the Congo’ doesn’t hold back. He has pulled quite a coup-de-theatre with this superb dialectic; a thoughtful, incisive piece – equal parts hilarious and harrowing – about one of the most blighted regions in the world. The writer explores the complexity of the situation in the DRC and, more broadly, Western interference (benign or otherwise) in former colonies from every angle that the play’s two and a half hours will permit. The festival trope is just the right satirical vehicle (think scaled-down Live Aid) for this intellectually-rich discursive piece. If there is a main aim it is to upend the notion of over-simplified narratives. In one of several scenes where this is exemplified, Stef has a verbal showdown with feminist poet and self-proclaimed expert, Ira (Pamela Nomvete) over not reducing the causes of the DRC conflict to the issue of gender alone.
There are no weak links amongst the versatile ensemble. They prove themselves well up to the task of Brace’s excellent dialogue and Michael Longhurst’s energetic direction. The idea of Sule Rimi’s ghostly narrator stalking proceedings is a master stroke. He covers a lot of metaphorical mileage. As a dapper, lurid-coloured dandy he’s the voice of modern technology. By the second half, bloodied and dishevelled, he comes to symbolise the unravelling of Stef’s troubled psyche as well as the festival’s doomed trajectory.
The cast gracefully manoeuvre the ingenious but precarious-looking set (which includes a collapsible floor). And if this wasn’t enough visual and cerebral stimuli, a live band is cleverly weaved into the storyline, playing traditional Congolese rhythms.
The ambition of Brace’s play could have gone down the road of misguided artistic hubris. However, the writer has clearly approached this vast and complicated subject with the humility of one well-aware of just how difficult it is.
‘They Drink it in the Congo’ challenges its audience without the need to preach or patronise. An unequivocal triumph.
Written by Adam Brace
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Assistant Director: Taio Lawson
Musical Director: Michael Henry
Dialect Consultant/Translation: Donovan McGrath & Nickens Nkoso
Kirstey Besterman – Various
Fiona Button – Stef
Richie Campbell – Luis
Sidney Cole – Various
Tosin Cole – Various
Roger Evans – Various
Richard Goulding – Tony
Joan Iyiola – Various
Anna-Marie Nabirye – Anne-Marie
Pamela Nomvete – Various
Richard Pepple – Victor
Sule Rimi – Various
Musicians: Joseph Roberts, Crispin Robinson & Alan Weekes.