Rwanda’s Past in London’s Theatreland

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

The Overwhelming
Reviewed by Shaun Hutchinson

The word lokeli – ‘the overwhelming’ in the Mongo language of Africa’s Congo basin – describes the conquest, subjugation and slaughter of millions of Congolese initiated by Belgium’s King Leopold II.
It’s a fitting title for JT Rogers’ play which overwhelms the audience with a harrowing dramatisation of Rwanda’s 1994 tragedy. 
The play, hosted by the National Theatre, is part of a recent string of films, books and plays that attempt to gain some kind of perspective on the greatest human tragedy of our era. As usual, events are refracted through the eyes of a Western visitor.
By setting the drama in the months leading up to the catastrophe in which thousands lost their lives the play examines deep-seated prejudices and resentments prevalent in contemporary Rwanda and contextualizes them within the political reality of a society dealing with its past. 
United States diplomatic hypocrisy, the impotence of the United Nations and global political intrigue combine with seemingly inexplicable enmity between the people of the country.
These are the grand themes which overarch tense human relationships.  In a series of seamlessly evolving and interconnected scenes a picture of a society on the edge of despair is portrayed through the convincing performances of a cast at the top of its game. 
The story revolves around US academic Jack Exley, played by Matthew Marsh, who travels with his new wife [Tanya Moodie] and surly teenaged son [Geoffrey Garlfield] to Rwanda to meet an old friend and complete a writing project.  His optimism is soon replaced with the realisation that this is a country in which all is not as it seems. 
Intimate themes of loyalty, friendship, and betrayal compete with weightier concerns about international diplomacy and global political intervention in this story which is both well written and realistically performed. 
The fast paced plot – directed by Max Stafford-Clark – moves effortlessly between each issue. 
As the story evolves from enthusiasm to tension and frustration, the audience learns much, through gripping and informative dialogue, which is full of incisive and often comedic one-liners.
It’s a tragic story of despair and violence, human weaknesses and susceptibility to the most base human traits of prejudice and hatred. These themes are also reflected in the relationships of Exley’s son and wife with the people of the country – from politicians to servants.
Those who appear ordinary are also capable of extraordinary crimes.
The final scenes are harrowing – we know the disaster which is to follow  and the impending disaster unfolds as tensions develop, hidden secrets are unveiled and the inevitable bloodshed occurs. It is a story that could leave you shocked and disheartened.
This excellent production – which starts with hope and evolves into despair – will certainly test any romantic notions of the role of international diplomacy.
The Overwhelming is on tour of Britain until October 2006.
Written By: JT Rogers
Directed By: Max Stafford-Clark
Cottesloe Theatre, South Bank, London, United Kingdom.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black’s critic-at-large.
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