They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida Theatre, review: ‘A rich mess and a bold sprawl’

The play takes on board the ‘white lens’ difficulties involved (of presumption, authenticity etc) and wrestles with them with exuberance and humour

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 24 August 2016 18:01
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Sule Rimi stars in ‘They Drink It in the Congo’
Sule Rimi stars in ‘They Drink It in the Congo’

The Almeida addressed the appalling situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo a few years back when it staged the European premiere of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined – a piece which, with its bar/brothel setting and its Mother Courage-like protagonist, tackled the harrowing issue of rape as a weapon of war. Adam Brace now comes at the Congolese crisis from a markedly different angle in this stimulating, wide-ranging and often very funny play.

The story of They Drink It In The Congo focuses on 30-something Stef (strongly played by Fiona Button) and her struggles to organise Congo Voice, a new London arts festival designed to raise awareness of a region that is the site of the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Stef is the daughter of wealthy white Kenyan farmer and her liberal guilt has been intensified by what she witnessed during a brief, traumatic visit to the Congo. It's dramatised in a flashback at the end of the first half. Accordingly, she insists that one-third of the steering committee should be Congolese – the rest is comprised of NGOs and Tony (Richard Goulding), the ex-boyfriend she's enlisted for his “event consultant” know-how.

However, she's completely underestimated the range of conflicting opinions amongst the Congolese diaspora – a snag for her proportions to which she is rudely awakened when the festival receives death threats from Combattants de Londres, a militant anti-government organisation that blames Britain for condoning the ruthless exploitation of their country. “Couldn't one of the whites just walk out?” suggests Tony, to be reminded sharply by the white woman from Human Rights Monitor that the festival “needs our financial pledges”. Should they really recruit “inappropriate” people “simply because they are Congolese”? In any case, as a young activist points out, the ban on explicit political statements would make the event “a festival to help Congo which can't say what's wrong with Congo”.

There is, of course, a parallel between the aim of the play – to communicate the plight of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Londoners – and the aim of the fictional festival. The difference is that the play takes on board the “white lens” difficulties involved (of presumption, authenticity etc) and wrestles with them with exuberance and humour – qualities that infuse Michael Longhurst's vibrant, in-the-round production with its onstage band and excellent twelve-strong cast.

The long and hideously painful relationship between the West and the DRC – from Atlantic slave-traders and Belgian colonisers to plundering multinationals – is a huge and complex subject. Brace niftily manages to treat us to a crash course and to satirise Tony's need to have it summed up in sound-bites in the scene, before the press launch, when he asks for a four-and-a-half minute briefing on Congo's problems. The fact that the country's main desirable mineral nowadays is coltan – used in smartphones and tablets – is pointed up here by a man in a bright pink suit (strikingly played by Sule Rimi) who stalks Stef throughout the play and voices her busy traffic of phone messages as a sort of conscience figure. Not least of the many ironies for this particular festival is its heavy use of online media for promotion. “Is your mobile helping fund war in Congo?” asks a placard.

Yes, the piece is a bit messy and sprawling – but it's a rich mess and a bold sprawl.

To October 1; 020 7359 4404

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