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 The Theatreguide.London Review


World Music
Donmar Theatre Winter-Spring 2004

Steve Waters' play is earnest, informative, enlightening, and not very good.

That's a bit unfair. It is not bad, and its problems are those almost inevitable in a play About Something - the sincerity is stronger than the dramaturgy. Too many scenes spell out their Deeper Meanings too undisguisedly, too many characters are Symbols Of The Larger Issues, too many surprises are telegraphed too far in advance.

The Message does survive the awkwardness of presentation, and it's a strong and important message. And that may well be enough to make it a satisfying evening for you.

Waters' subject is the pandemic of tribal wars and massacres tearing several central African states apart, and his message is that Europeans, cushioned by distance, security and preconceptions, can't begin to understand the enormity and complexities of what's going on.

His central character is a British Euro-politician with an intimate and personal knowledge of Africa dating back to a gap year teaching in a village school. He has kept touch with friends from the region, and tries desperately to make his fellow bureaucrats see the human story behind the numbing statistics.

To that end he has brought an African friend, now a leader in his country, to address a Brussels conference, to exhort and shock them into directing their support in the right places for the right reasons. Meanwhile, flashbacks show us the younger man in that gap year first exposure to Africa, while an encounter with a young African woman in Brussels illustrates how real and personal the issues are to the man today.

That a couple of key characters are going to turn out at the end to be very different from what we thought, and that the young man's first and lasting impressions of Africa were coloured by innocence and romanticism,  are both telegraphed so clearly in the first act that the shock and surprise Waters hopes for in later revelations aren't there.

But they do make his point that even the supposed expert, for all his passion and personal identification with the problem, gets it tragically wrong, and that what is destroying Africa is simply so very foreign to the European experience that we can barely begin to comprehend it. The play offers no solutions beyond humility and the acknowledgement of ignorance as a place to begin the learning process.

Kevin R. McNally invests the central figure with a passionate intensity that remains a little too unvarying through scenes of debate, love-making and despair. Ray Fearon as the African politician, Nikki Amuka-Bird as the refugee in Brussels, and Sebastian Harcombe as a hard-nosed Eurocrat do what they can to raise symbols to the level of human characters, but director Josie Rourke, who allows too many scenes of passion, anger or debate to operate on the same single note of shouting, has not helped them in the process.

The drama of ideas is a legitimate and potentially powerful genre, but the challenge for author, director and actors is always to make it work as drama and not just an illustrated lecture. You may leave World Music feeling you've been taught something valuable, but not that you've been to a real play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - World Music - Donmar 2004