I’m supposed to be interviewing Stella Feehily about her new play, Bang Bang Bang, which explores the lives of human rights researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but so far she’s asking most of the questions. We’re sat in the rehearsal room of Out of Joint’s north London offices, and having discovered that I visited the country with an NGO several years ago she is now gently interrogating me in her subtle Irish brogue. The role of interviewer is clearly one the playwright is comfortable playing. Her densely researched script grew out of hours of conversations with aid workers, journalists, photojournalists, human rights defenders and government advisors. She set out to tell their story: “I just wanted to make people aware that when they see that person on the news, saying those three lines, that they are actually juggling so many other things. They haven’t just appeared there in Africa.”
I tell her that in my experience the problems of the DRC can feel overwhelming. My mind still recoils from the impossibility of accepting that the world allows both the reality of the clogged trenches of shit which line the streets of Kinshasa and the simultaneous existence of, let’s say, the streets of Sloane Square, where Bang Bang Bang will play at the Royal Court. The disparity between these worlds is so vast, so total, that it makes comparing them seem like an absurd category error.
Feehily has heard these sorts of stories before. She says that what really surprised her in her research was the level of cynicism about aid work from those delivering it: “I had no idea. You just think about these wonderful people who work out there. They say a couple of lines on the news about horrific situations: ‘This amount of babies are dying, we need this much money.’ That’s all you hear on the news. When you actually talk to people about the work, some people are crusaders and continue to believe in the work, but I also found the opposite end where they think aid is broken. I was amazed at the range of opinions, and also the fact that people were speaking cynically about the world with a smile.”
It’s those differences in opinion which drive some of the key conflicts in the play: “I think you find that there are different types of people, but everybody starts off with idealism and idealistic intentions. There’s one character in the play, Stephen, who is completely cynical. However, he’s still working within the Human Rights world in a different capacity. He’s a consultant on Human Rights for various multinationals. He thinks he can have more influence by working from the inside. That’s actually one argument, but then again the multinational could be using him to say: ‘Well listen, we’ve got yer man Stephen and he worked for Human Rights Watch, so it must be okay if he says it’s okay.’ So we’ve got the totally hardened cynic who thinks aid’s broken. Then we’ve got Mathilde, who’s an idealist who is completely crushed by her incomprehension and failure in the face of huge problems. The fact that she thought she could do something. Then you’ve got people like Bibi and Sadhbh, who are the stayers.
For me, they’re amazing people. They’re very pragmatic but they believe that they can make the world a less awful place. They continue to do it and they persevere. You’d think that in a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo your humanity would be totally rocked. I think it is, but it’s also enhanced.” Sadhbh’s perseverance is at the heart of Bang Bang Bang, but it is brutally tested. I ask whether Feehily thinks that her protagonist’s determination to continue at that point comes in part from the dreadful knowledge that if she doesn’t keep going, her experiences will have been for nought.