How much do we know about the Congo, really? The title of the play mocks us – are we so ignorant that the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous advertising jingle of the 80s, something that has nothing whatsoever to do with the real Democratic Republic of the Congo and its problems? Probably. But if you’re struggling, fear not for Stef (Fiona Button) is more than happy to take on the task of raising the awareness we lack. She outlines plans for a festival celebrating Congolese culture and pulls together a planning committee – bringing together representatives of aid agencies, a PR expert (who also happens to be Stef’s ex-boyfriend) and various members of the Congolese community living in London. Stef’s Congolese colleague Anne-Marie (Anna-Maria Nabirye) challenges her to ensure at least one-third of the committee members are from the Congo. She agrees. The event is called Congo Voice, after all.
In the first half, writer Adam Brace successfully plays the different ambitions each of these people has for the festival against each other, through fast-paced, witty dialogue. He satirises the problems of raising awareness of international crises amongst the British, astutely examining the often-patronising attitudes, the vague aims and the restrictive bureaucracy. The problems with the divided committee are exacerbated when anti-DRC-government militia group Les Combattants de Londres hears of the festival plans and attempts to shut it down by issuing death threats against all involved. The play charts Stef’s increasingly frantic attempts to ensure the event goes ahead, in the face of Les Combattants opposition and the doubts of the sponsors.
This is an ambitious, messy beast of a play, which covers an enormous amount of ground in its 2 hours and 40 minutes. Before the end of the first half we have been introduced to a dizzying amount of characters, seen Congo Voice win against the first of the Les Combattants offensives, and been to the Congo itself in a flashback, which shows Stef’s own traumatic experience as a volunteer. The flashback scene changes the tone significantly: so much that it could almost be two separate plays. Miners working in the Congo tear a hole the centre of the stage. A scene showing bedtime with a father and daughter quickly becomes terrifying and violent with rebels prowling at the edges of the auditorium. The play goes from an intelligent and funny satire to a harrowing, vivid portrayal of the war atrocities occurring in the DRC. This has a powerful impact; but the overall aims of the play become unclear as a result. Brace has crammed an awful lot into this play, so much that he seems to have lost a little control over the material, and some parts have ended up disappointingly underdeveloped.
For example, a lot of the characters are unexplored and a little flat, due to their insignificant stage time. Many of the actors (particularly the actors of colour) play multiple parts, with each character given just a few lines and not much of a backstory before being moved on from and forgotten about. However, two characters do enjoy complexity, backstory, fairly constant stage presence and a significant personal journey throughout the piece – Stef and Tony (the PR expert/ex-boyfriend, played by Richard Goulding). They are both white. Even Anne-Marie who is the most consistent and involved member of the Congolese community is not as multi-faceted and interesting as Stef and Tony.
Additionally, the heavy focus on Stef’s post-traumatic stress and guilt doesn’t sit too well. The show ends when she finally gets closure from the experience she had during her time as a volunteer, by going back to the DRC and asking a victim of political violence whom she had ignored at the time, to show her his injuries. He complies with her pretty humiliating request and the lights go down. Stef’s personal journey is over. She has made peace with herself and that’s all there is to see. The implication that her story is the most important here is more than a little offensive. Perhaps this is intentional. Perhaps this is part of Brace’s earlier satirising. However, it all feels a little less funny and a little more problematic following the flashback. It isn’t clear enough and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the DRC is simply a convenient backdrop for this rich, educated white woman’s tale of guilt and self-redemption.
There are some interesting creative choices made under Michael Longhurst’s direction, including Oudry (Sule Rimin), a mysterious character who taunts Stef, skulking the stage in a pink bowler suit and hat. He is unignorable yet unobtrusive, creating an uneasy presence on the stage, even after his identity becomes clear. The hole torn in the stage for the flashback remains in the second half, a visual symbol of the damage that pervades this story from every angle (design by Jon Bausor). Additionally, for the second half Oudry’s suit is torn to shreds and crude items made of wood and exposed nails replace tablets, laptops and phones. These serve as striking visual reminders of the unignorable pain and violence at the centre of the story, which can seem distant in the boardroom, as well as referencing the fact that exploitation of resources in the Congo provides us with important parts for our electronic gadgets.
The calibre of acting is exceptionally strong throughout. Richie Campbell gives a memorable and affecting performance as Louis, leader of Les Combattants, which I would have loved to see more of. Button gives a nuanced, powerful performance as a woman unravelling under pressure, while Goulding provides excellent support as Tony, as well as some great moments of humour. A special mention should go to the band (Alan Weekes, Joseph Roberts and Crispin Robinson) that provides excellent live Congo-inspired music.
Although not perfect, this is a powerful, bold new piece of theatre. It is strikingly staged, brilliantly performed and the script, though sometimes difficult to follow and a little over packed, is funny and moving. Brace deserves full credit for trying to shed light on these issues and for asking questions, even if there are no easy answers.