The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Spring 2010
In the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa there have been wars going on for more than a decade, the kinds of wars that get occasional mention in the inner pages of our newspapers even though millions have been killed and millions more affected.
The fighting is partly over ancient tribal enmities, partly over the simple lust for power and partly for gain, as whoever controls a region gets to steal its diamonds, gold and other mineral resources.
Lynn Nottage's play is about a particular horror of these wars, that the battlefield is frequently the bodies of women, who are routinely raped, enslaved and mutilated by whichever army, guerrilla force or gang of bandits passes by, less out of lust than as a demonstration of their power - they do it because they can and to show everybody that they can.
It is a serious and powerful subject, and one that deserves a better play than this.
Nottage has invented a Mother Courage figure, the owner of a village tavern and brothel who serves with equal hospitality and expectation of profit whichever army is passing through.
The central dark irony of the play is that her girls are actually better off here than in their home villages, since there is some control over how the men will mistreat them.
But that point made, the play has little more to tell us. There isn't a single character that isn't a stereotype or cliché, a single moment that will surprise you (unless you have never seen any other play, film or TV show in your life).
We see three of what we are told are ten whores - the hard-edged experienced one, the donkey-like dull one who reads old fashion magazines and dreams of returning to her village, and the one who retains a core of purity despite being 'ruined,' so badly mutilated down there that she's of no use as a whore.
Mama Nadi herself is a hard-nosed money-grubber who, of course, has a heart of gold, and she comes equipped with the obligatory wooer, a comic figure who nonetheless loves her sincerely.
In the course of the play at least two armies (It's not always clear who's who) are going to come and go and a client is going to display his power by humiliating someone.
One of the girls will describe in harrowing detail the rapes and tortures she experienced, one will get pregnant and botch an abortion, a happy dance is going to turn into hysterical frenzy as the girl loses her grip.
Somebody's husband will show up and be turned away by his shame-filled wife, Mama's going to make an uncharacteristically generous (and unbelievable) gesture, the comic boyfriend is finally going to wear down Mama's resistance as she breaks down and confesses that all she really wants is a man's love, and the wars are going to go on.
In short, absolutely nothing that you could not predict, nothing that surprises you, and very little that feels believable or real.
What power the play has - and it does have some - is borrowed from the factual situation, not generated by itself.
That woman's description of her capture and abuse (very likely taken verbatim from one of the interviews Nottage conducted in her research) is indeed horrible, the men's casual assumption of power over the women is chilling, and there is even some valid pathos in the wife's refusal to see her husband.
But these are qualities that survive Nottage's dramaturgy, not ones that are developed or even particularly well presented by it.
Director Indhu Rubasingham keeps things moving, but can't disguise the clichés or even make clear which group of customers we're seeing in some scenes. (It may be that the characters as written did have more potential to become real, in which case the failure is entirely Rubasingham's)
Given the stereotypes that were written or directed for them to play, Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi and Lucian Msamati as her would-be lover come closest to making their characters come alive.
If Ruined gives faces to the abstract numbers of newspaper stories and makes them real to the audience, it will have done its job. But how much better it could have accomplished that if it had been a better play.
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