The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Autumn 2011
This is an earnest play on a serious subject, and I fear it may sink without a trace.
The problem is that the subject – the atrocity-filled genocidal wars that have been going on in central Africa for years – is one that most of us just can't get our minds around (as evidenced by that fact that the press doesn't report them, assuming we're not interested), and feel guilty about not being concerned about, making us further resistant to thinking about them.
It would take an overwhelmingly powerful play to break through that mental filter, and I fear that Stella Feehily's is too polite and controlled to do that.
(She's not alone. There have been several plays on the general subject in recent years, among them Matt Charman's The Observer, J.T. Rogers' The Overwhelming and Lynn Nottage's Ruined, and if you're having trouble remembering which was which, you're proving my point.)
Feehily's drama is set largely in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo, formerly....), where an Irish woman working for a human rights organisation is collecting evidence of atrocities, fully aware that the most she can hope to achieve is bringing one or another local warlord to justice.
Her commitment is strong enough to risk endangering her relationships back home and her physical safety in the field, and in the course of the play she will interview victims, meet the warlord, be beaten up, lose the boyfriend who just wants a more normal life, go home and realise nobody understands her, and go back to Africa for more.
Feehily presents the character as admirable and heroic, though by comparing her with a couple of career-driven journalists, she suggests that all have a lot of the danger-junkie in them. And actress Orla Fitzgerald gives her a touch of the zealot, a single-mindedness that will not admit the possibility of thinking otherwise.
In effect playwright, actress and director Max Stafford-Clark may be saying that, in the world in which the rest of us can't focus our minds on these horrors, it takes someone obsessive and a little crazy to do the job we're abdicating.
But doesn't that just let the rest of us off the hook even more?
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