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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Overwhelming
Cottesloe Theatre 2006

How do you put genocide onstage? In dealing with the murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda in 1994, J. T. Rogers has chosen, wisely, to focus on one case and a handful of characters.

In doing so, he loses the larger picture - you have to read the programme for the numbers and historical context - but creates a graspable and moving personal drama.

Rogers focusses on a family of Americans who come to Africa just before the massacres. A white academic is planning to write a book about a friend, an African doctor working with AIDS-infected children. His black second wife is a journalist looking for human stories and his teenage son from his first marriage is mopily dragging along.

But the doctor has disappeared, and as they search for him the Americans encounter the disguised or open tribal hatreds of the Africans and the impotence or wilful disengagement of the embassy and UN Europeans.

Eventually the Americans face a dramatic crisis that forces them to face their own inability to comprehend, much less alter the forces of hatred and history.

That summary makes the play sound much more intellectual than it is, and its power lies in the human stories, as the professor finds all his naive assumptions about his ability to get things done inoperative in this new situation, the wife's natural fascination with Africa leads her into the blind acceptance of extremist propaganda, and revelations about the doctor and others they have trusted force them into unbearable choices.

Rogers does stack the deck a bit, making the visitors a bit too naive in order to make their shock more dramatic - surely they would have done some homework before coming to Africa. And he leaves himself open to the charge that by dealing with one story and not 800,000 he is trivializing the horror.

But large numbers are abstractions and one family's comprehensible horror has a greater power to shake us. Max Stafford-Clark directs with efficiency and intensity, and in a large cast, most of whom double and triple roles, Matthew Marsh keeps the professor's confusion, frustration and ultimate horror at the centre.


Gerald Berkowitz


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Review - The Overwhelming - National 2006