(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/24.)
You have to admire the ambition of Adam Brace. In his 2009 play Stovepipe, he looked at the use of private security companies in Iraq. Now he tackles the vast question of how we come to terms with what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Along with Anders Lustgarten, Brace is one of the few British dramatists to think internationally, and although this play is overloaded and overlong, it poses disturbing questions.
The focus is on Stef, a guilt-ridden Cambridge graduate who has seen Congolese violence first-hand but is determined to show the country’s positive side. Her big idea is to create a British festival called Congo Voice that will include a rumba band, dancers and poets. Stef is adamant that one third of her committee will be Congolese, but she runs into difficulties. There are divisions in the Congolese diaspora – above all, the active hostility of a group called Les Combattants de Londres, which is dedicated to creating a free Congo. Stef is faced with death threats, defections and the inherent contradiction of creating a depoliticised jamboree.
Behind the play lurks the big question of how we represent what is happening in distant countries and cultures. Brace begins by having a Congolese campaigner mocking our own fitful interest in foreign affairs and predicting yet another evening of “white words from black mouths”. He answers that in several ways. One is by showing Stef, who has suppressed her memories of a Congolese atrocity, learning to acknowledge it. Another is by having the Congolese characters periodically resort to their native tongue. We hear nothing but English spoken on stage, but know when they are doing so because, in an ironic reversal of the usual process, we see surtitles where their dialogue is translated into Lingala. Brace hits us hardest when he reminds us of British complicity with the DRC president, Joseph Kabila, and our parasitic dependence on the country’s mineral resources.