They Drink It In The Congo

There's a very British way of how we process learning about atrocities going on in the world that many of us know little about - first humour, then guilt, a desire to somehow "fix it", a need to know more but with the lack of headspace and time to really learn about it. They Drink It In The Congo raises all these feelings in you from the outset - quickly referencing your likely immediate (and possibly only) reaction to the title with the 'fruit squash echo', before unraveling at speed a potted history of the Central African territory through a very personal exploration of guilt that we can clearly recognise from our own reaction. It's educational, moving and funny - but above all, it shows us our own flaws when we try and solve other people's problems instead of our own.

It's educational, moving and funny - but above all, it shows us our own flaws when we try and solve other people's problems instead of our own.

The appeasement of guilt here is for Stef - a rich, white African born daughter of a farmer, who saw one man viciously wounded after being forced to rape his own daughter - now focusing all her energy to create a 'Congo Voice' festival to raise awareness in the UK. The plans and the committee (who need to be 1/3rd Congolese) for the festival spend most of the time getting so embroiled in disagreements, red tape and death threats, that the desire to do something gets in the way of what that something actually is.

Whilst educating each other (and us) about "the problems of the Congo in five minutes", there's a recognisable reality in front of us with light undercurrents of racism, fighting factions, "art for good" and a cheeky down to earth humour, so it rarely feels like didactic preaching and is never patronising or over emotional (when it so easily could be). Indeed its strength is in the believability of the annoying "shit that happens" when we try and do something worthy and for the greater good.

Fiona Button as Stef holds this together with a fantastically grounded performance of someone who is trying to be just an administrator whilst controlling the guilt, pain, privilege and need for self-validation always under the surface. She rarely shows it and yet we always sense it. The tone is predominantly light even though the subject matter is far from it - again, as is often the case when we deal with such topics in reality.

This makes it all the more discomforting when the story explodes - almost literally as the stage falls in on itself at the end of the first act to show us the events in the Congo that bore her guilt today - acting as a powerful slap in the face that renders you speechless at the action rather than emotional at the events unfolding. It makes for a very quiet interval as we're learning, laughing and recognising ourselves at the same time. And likely sharing some of her guilt that we do nothing that is truly going to help any individual.

Whilst resolutely being a mirror to our Britishness, there's also a strong Congolese feel throughout - surtitles are used to show the words being spoken in the native language (when actually being said in English), flipping to showing the English when the action is in the DRC. The second act is accompanied by a band (ostensibly auditioning for the festival but remaining (a little oddly) as a traditional soundtrack). And the constant shadowing of Stef by Oudry (Sule Rimi majestically dancing, flailing and owning the stage with few words) represents the spirit that is in her - and which haunts her.

As with many ongoing fights in the world, there will be differing, strong beliefs in the whys wherefores and solutions to the problem. This isn't the place to go into those - other than to say that the 'oil' often at the cause of these situations is here replaced by the minerals that make up much of the technology in our devices today; hence the fight for power and money to be gained from the global desire for such resources. It certainly makes you feel guilty whilst thinking about updating your status as you leave.

How much of this you know already only impacts on the educative nature of the piece - but doesn't detract from what is also a very clever take on our need to do good in the world and how that need is often based on our inherent desire to assuage feelings of guilt at our helplessness. You're never quite sure of how to feel watching this but it is a powerfully challenging (but amusingly self-aware) evening that you will remember and debate for a long time afterwards. This is theatre to provoke and talk about but is far from being exclusive or at all moralistic.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

The Democratic Republic of Congo. Home to the deadliest conflict since World War II.

London. Home to a festival to raise awareness of the Congo. (That is, if Stef can get the festival off the ground).

Featuring an ensemble cast and a live band performing original music inspired by the Congo, Adam Brace's hilarious and anarchic new play unpacks the problems of doing something good about something bad. Following their collaboration on Stovepipe, (Sunday Times' 10 Best Theatre Events of the Decade) Michael Longhurst (Carmen Disruption) returns to the Almeida to direct.