Rape is a crime against humanity, especially when used as a weapon of war. Chaos by Design tells us that nearly half a million Congolese women are raped every year (about one a minute) which makes the Democratic Republic of Congo eligible to be the worst place for women on Earth. Rats Nest Theatre have made a gallant effort to increase our awareness of this issue and by and large succeed. However, despite the obvious attempt to evoke the sympathy that rape victims deserve, it is unfortunate that these characters are not strong enough for us to appreciate them on another level.
Angelique, a Congolese orphan living with her uncle, steals the purse of a British photojournalist called June. After being found out Angelique agrees to meet her victim and the two become friends. June gains the prurient interviews she craves and gives Angelique the chance to talk about her dreams and aspirations of a better world for women in the DRC. The aim is to show a face behind the statistics, to make the issue more personal so that we can relate to Angelique, yet the play favours quoting brutal facts for drama rather than crafting characters for the audience to side with.
Much of the play is staged under a blackout with a heavy reliance on sound cues which at times proved their worth to the story but also served to break the flow of the piece. Indeed, the actors are let down by a lacklustre script which serves to undermine the drama of the setting. Far too often the moments that hold potential for tension last for a split second before the moment is diffused and the character's problem is resolved. This left me surprisingly unsympathetic towards Angelique's plight which was completely unintentional. This play is almost a series of monologues as Angelique and June take turns to let the audience in on their thoughts, yet monologues are a curious choice to tell the story of an evolving friendship and more prose would have been welcomed. I might add that the physical representation of rape on stage is never going to be as horrific as actual rape; an emotional focus would be equally horrible and far more engaging.
On the plus side, there was a genuine vibe of urban Africa but the play would have benefited from more people on stage to add to the buzz of the crowd and help make Angelique one amongst many. Also, a clever and enjoyable beginning served to lull me into a false sense of security which was then quickly broken by the nature of the play’s content.
The fundamental problem with Chaos by Design, though, is that it solely relies on the shock of the statistics that it wants you to see past: if you read about the DRC in a newspaper you would be equally horrified. How could I not feel sorry for Angelique - she lives in hell. I didn't feel like I got to know her, though, so she was too generic for the play's message. Rats Nest Theatre deserve applause for highlighting this issue but need to add more depth to this work to make it more personal.