A few weeks ago I tore myself up in knots reviewing Caryl Churchill’s Pigs and Dogs at The Royal Court. Though the play itself was a slip of a thing, I found myself dragged under the swirling current of questions it raised. I couldn’t understand how a play with such noble intentions by artists I wholly admire could lodge itself so uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach. Half-formed babblings about colonialism, white guilt and the power inherent in telling stories tumbled through my head and onto Exeunt.
Adam Brace’s They Drink It in the Congo examines these ideas with far more wit and nuance than I could have mustered. It’s a boldly ambitious story about the white, Kenyan-born Stef (Fiona Button) a woman on a mission to bring a Congolese festival (the jauntily but cringily named CongoVoice) to London. She clamours for Congolese support, dodges funding concerns and death threats, and desperately avoids facing the deep seated reality of her guilt, her responsibility and her debt to the Congolese people. We feel her genuine ache to help a vibrant, downtrodden community, and the cynical motivations that bubble just beneath its surface. Behind her, Sule Rimi sulks as Oudry, the personification of the technology plundered from Congolese mineral mines. The unshakable and snazzily dressed embodiment of White Guilt.
Don’t look at the wound, they said.
They Drink it in the Congo cuts deep into the heart of the tensions between institutionally oppressed black communities and the ‘white angels’ hell bent on helping them, who celebrate cultural antiquities while whole nations burn. The frivolous and foolhardy CongoVoice festival feels like a cypher for the kind of paternal artistic expression that so upset my stomach upon watching Pigs and Dogs, a trinket crafted for the white middle class. A limp handed gesture that’s a metaphor for all the other limp handed gestures we’ve become so accustomed to: Concern ads where brown eyed children with distended bellies plead balefully under the strains of Sinead O’Connor, art that’s meant to ‘raise awareness’, hashtags designed to self-sanctify, impotent volunteer visits to Africa and South America that play themselves out on Instagram.
In the end, it won’t make a blind bit of difference.
The play is strikingly beautiful. Director Michael Longhurst discovers an unsettling aesthetic in the clash between the ‘Compassion Industry’ setting of committee meetings, press launches and Internet Cafes and the dusty, brutal vibrance of Congo. The Almeida space, always teeming with possibilities, is exploited to its full potential in this expansive piece and Michael Henry’s haunting sound design.
It’s true, in such an overstuffed, anarchic work things do slip through the cracks. Its metaphors grow hamfisted as Oudry looms over Stef like a literal shadow of shame, dripping computer chips and mobile phone bits. A gaping head wound becomes a wounded country, the botched festival a botched display of solidarity. It’s a crowded play, and the lengthy cast of characters parading on and off the stage can make it difficult to truly connect with the Congolese community, as do the surtitles that scurry along a screen as speech loops between languages. The constant double and tripling of roles, particularly prevalent among the actors of colour (Fiona Button feels like the only fixed point in time, a certain, immutable thing), can widen the space between the audience and the characters onstage. It sometimes feels as though Longhurst is unsure of how to balance the weight of all the bodies on the stage. In the play’s clawed together deus ex-machina, Brace risks pushing the focus entirely onto Stef and her consumption of Congo, rather than Congo itself.
Having said all this, there’s a powerful refrain that shudders through They Drink it in the Congo. That tension between wanting to help but not wanting to look too close, to know too much, doesn’t resolve itself. Instead it coils inside me like a snake as I run through the twists and turns of the narrative in my head again. The feeling in my stomach now is not the dull throb of unease that Pigs and Dogs left me with. They Drink it in the Congo has produced something with teeth, and much sharper bite.