THEATRE: They Drink It In The Congo

Written by: Sophie Taylor

A festival within a play where the director feels like the main character.

Just another evening. White words from black mouths. And everyone enjoys a little visit to Congo. But nobody has to go there. That’s what this event is. And it has no value.
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They Drink It In The Congo is a new play by Adam Brace about a group of Brits attempting to stage a festival to raise awareness for the conflict in Congo. The play itself, considering the current Congolese conflict, post-colonial guilt, middle class guilt, white guilt and Western interventions is dripping in self awareness.

Taking my seat in the impressive yet intimate Almeida, I go to switch my phone off how very polite of me but not before firing off an excited little tweet about press night at the Almeida. “Looks like a full house tonight!” I type, or something equally original, accompanied by a generic snap of the bar area. It gets a like.

I shove the phone in my bag under my seat and forget about it for an hour. I find myself sitting next to the warm and chatty Assistant Director, Taio Lawson and we joke about me storming off in the interval, declaring the show a failure. Chuckle chuckle.

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Character Anne-Marie opens the show:

“Just another evening. Rich whites and Conglais. Dressed up smart to hear people talk about Congo. White words from black mouths. Maybe watch a rumba. And feel bad because of the problems. And feel good because we are caring. And everyone enjoys a little visit to Congo. But nobody has to go there. That’s what this event is. And it has no value.”

Which is just the start of this chillingly meta experience. At one stage a press conference within the play is almost postponed and the festival threatened by a committee member’s physical injury. Here we sit on a press night rescheduled due to an injury endured by a member of the cast, watching a play about the Congo written by a white man and listening to character Anne-Marie recite his words (real name Anna-Marie). Coincidences left, right and centre stage perhaps, but it’s already getting under my skin. 

North Four, North London magazine, They Drink It In The Congo, play, Almeida, theatre, review

We are reminded that one of the main sources of conflict in the DRC is the Congolese minerals found in everyday Western technology, such as coltan: a black tar like mineral that our mobile phones and almost every other kind of electronic device are made with. It’s coltan that keeps them so light (and breakable). My flippant tweet starts flailing around in my head like a regrettable party guest who’s outstayed their welcome.

So who is the main character? Is it Stef (hard working and versatile Fiona Button), the Kenyan born white girl with a trust fund suffering from middle class post-colonial guilt? A character that some have referred to as disingenuous and aloof, which is quite possibly the point. Are we supposed to sympathise with her, or with Anne-Marie (expertly played by Anna-Marie): the first to talk and the character dealing with the issues first hand? Or is it Oudry (a captivating and flexible Sule Rimi) the voice of technology throughout, dressed like a sapeur and who plays the victim and source of Stef’s displaced trauma stress?

North Four, North London magazine, They Drink It In The Congo, play, Almeida, theatre, review

I don’t leave my seat in the interval. There’s a lot to digest. The Assistant Director has disappeared briefly, but I have so many questions! I try to stuff in some more information, quickly skimming through the programme. But the phrases African Diaspora and Hellenistic culture running around my mind are slowly replaced with the happy, upbeat rhythms of a live band that have gathered upstage. Musicians Joseph Roberts, Crispin Robinson and Alan Weeks play original music inspired by the Congo and underscore the remainder of the show. At the end of the first act the stage implodes in on itself with the weight of self reference and a traumatic flashback thanks to Jon Bausor’s dexterous set design. Although the mood has shifted during the interval (cue audience returning to their seats bopping, laughing and clapping along to the beats) this gaping wound remains centre stage.

Comedic relief is found in well timed physical humour, cock jokes and British self deprecation but the take away, hard to swallow issues are assertively driven home. 

North Four, North London magazine, They Drink It In The Congo, play, Almeida, theatre, review

Eavesdropping on reviews of the play I find that perhaps the point has been missed by some. I would argue that stating Adam Brace’s conclusion is that we shouldn’t attempt to help in case we cause offence, was not his intention. Simply turning a mirror on cultural attempts to assuage guilt and do a Bono / Jessica Hynes from Twenty Twelve, however, might be.

Is squeezing out a load of tears from some middle class people the answer? I think this play is acutely aware of the fact that it’s not .. We’re conscious of the fact that we are doing our best to tell a story that’s not ours, and to see if that’s useful.

Director, Michael Longhurst for Vice Magazine

North Four, North London magazine, They Drink It In The Congo, play, Almeida, theatre, review

I’m not about to throw my phone away, have a good cry and tweet about it on my laptop. But I am aware of how light that coltan feels in my pocket now.

Which is handy as I’ve got a lot of reading up to do on it.

 

They Drink It In The Congo at The Almeida Theatre until 1st Oct ’16.

Tickets here or from box office: 020 7359 4404

Photos by Marc Brenner

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