What do you know about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? That it is the seventh poorest country in the world, when its vast mineral reserves should make it one of the richest? That between 1997 and 2003 it was at the epicentre of the deadliest human conflict since World War II? That Congolese people still suffer from corruption, civil war and gross human rights violations? That, contrary to popular belief, they don’t only drink a jungle-themed British soft drink from the 1980s?
Adam Brace’s They Drink It In The Congo is a sprawling, three-hour dissection of the DRC – its history, its culture, and its problems – seen through the eyes of the Congolese diaspora in London. Part Twenty-Twelve-style committee comedy, part accusatory political tract, Brace’s play is an informative, harrowing, and unexpectedly funny chunk of theatre that adroitly steers clear of cultural tourism and packs some devastatingly powerful punches.
Stef (Fiona Button) is a sloaney Oxbridge graduate trying to set up a festival of Congolese culture – CongoVoice – in London, with the help of crass PR guru/ex-boyfriend Tony (Richard Goulding) and a squabbling committee of human rights lawyers, government busybodies, and Congolese immigrants. Seen by some as a genuine do-gooder, by others as little more than a self-serving mercenary, Stef cannot unite London’s Congolese in support of CongoVoice, and the festival’s gradual disintegration provides the backdrop to a compelling discussion of colonial guilt, of British complicity in Congolese suffering, and of our contemptible fickleness when it comes to acknowledging global inequality.
These, as we are told at the play’s beginning by Anna-Maria Nabirye’s kind-hearted single mother, are “white words in black mouths”, and it’s true, They Drink It In The Congo is theatre sodden in conceited, white-man righteousness, but that’s very much the point. This is a culturally insensitive play about cultural insensitivity. As an indirect beneficiary (like all of us with smartphones in our pockets, containing elements made from DRC-mined mineral coltan) of the DRC’s exploitation, Brace cannot legitimately lead a crusade against its problems like some latter-day missionary evangelist, but nor can he ignore it. His solution is to put this paralysis itself on stage instead, to raise awareness by writing about the difficulties of raising awareness, crowbarring in provocative detail about the DRC as he does so. One has to admire his chutzpah.
Michael Longhurst’s richly symbolic production, although it lags slightly when Brace instinctively piles too much onto his plate, generally serves this approach well. It suckers the audience in with some gloriously anarchic committee meetings and an exquisitely awkward press conference straight out of The Thick Of It. It gets to grips with the meat of the issue either side of the interval, when Jon Bausor’s clinically bureaucratic set – all frosted glass and office plants – caves in to make room for a scene of visceral, horrifying brutality.
And there are strong performances from the entire ensemble. Button’s Stef begins as a detestable gap-yah cliché, but the depth of her convictions is slowly revealed in a finely measured central performance. Richie Campbell captures both the fury and the folly of the militant freedom fighter as leader of the combative Congolese activists, Les Combattants de Londres. And Sule Rimi is a haunting, if slightly awkward, presence as a brightly suited ghost that dogs Stef’s conscience, adding in the occasional helpful exposition for the audience as well.
There’s an awful lot to chew over in They Do It In The Congo – sometimes too much – but it’s vital, perspective-altering stuff. Um Bongo will never taste the same again.
They Drink It In The Congo is playing the Almeida Theatre until October 1.
Image by Marc Brenner