By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Friday, May 7, 2010.
I must confess that I went to the Almeida Theatre’s showing of American writer Lynn Nottage’s award winning play – Ruined - with prejudices; expecting more lectures from do-gooding interventionists with condescending sermons and crocodile tear. I was wrong! This compelling story fuses complex questions of geo-politics, war and conflict with intimate issues of loyalty, shame, hurt and humiliation, so much so that it is almost perfect.
In the 120 minutes between the playful flirting of Mama Nadi [Jenny Jules] and Christian [Lucian Masamati], which opens and closes the production, we see Nottage’s sensitive writing and elegant dramatisation humanises these corrupted and traumatised victims of violence. The heartache which both characters mask is revealed in a series of concise but quite profound, and often harrowing, exchanges.
The Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], where the drama is set, symbolises the crimes committed against the entire continent of Africa by European powers over several centuries. Invented as an economic and political entity to facilitate the plunder and robbery of the region's natural resources following the 19th century Scramble for Africa - which divided the continent as a source of plunder – the land mass which is now the DRC was initially gifted as a personal possession to Belgian monarch Leopold III. After several decades of untold bestiality Belgium itself assumed formal colonial authority. Following decolonisation in 1960, independence leader Patrice Lumumba was overthrown and assassinated. Since then, the country - abundantly rich in natural resources and minerals - has been linked with political instability, war, refugee crises and disaster. The layers of violence, rape, and inhumanity are the visible tip of the iceberg which is the prolonged and systematic foreign intervention in the region.
This is the environment in which Ruined takes place, and the human material from which Lyn Nottage has created an excellent drama with characters trying to make sense of their surroundings, each with their own secrets and all looking for a way out. Jenny Jules’ portrayal of Mama Nadi is finely balanced between bullying power and well-hidden vulnerability, as she faces down soldiers and takes charge of her stable of women. Lucian Msamati's Christian is similarly pitch-perfect, mixing a nervous comedy as he veers between abstinence and alcohol.
The strength of Nottage's writing - which pornographic news reporting fails to depict - is that amidst the conflict envy, doubt and jealousy, as well as hope and optimism all thrive.
All are at the mercy of menacing, power drunk soldiers [with David Ajala capturing aggression, intimidation, and poignancy in his roles] – and are facing unbearable dilemmas. It’s a frightening atmosphere only lightened by Mama Nadi’s quick wit, and Dominic Kanza's live music.
Robert Jones's innovative revolving stage switches effortlessly between the dilapidated, galvanised hovel which is Mama Nadi’s brothel, and the squalid bedroom of her young prostitutes – touchingly recreated as the only home they know. With unusually strong roles for female characters: Michelle Asante’s Salima; Pippa Bennett-Warner, [who sings beautifully as Sophie] and Kehinde Fadipe playing Josephine are all outstanding. Check the tense and dramatic power plays between them as they vie for position amidst pin-up posters and romance novels.
Sensitively scripted, intelligently performed and deftly directed by Indhu Rubasingham [from Detaining Justice,and Fabulation], this play makes tangible profound emotions of the shame and humiliation that are the often hidden secrets of conflict. A well deserved standing ovation persuaded me to rethink my initial scepticism.
By Lyn Nottage
Until 05 June 2010
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.