Friday 26 May 2006

The Overwhelming

National Theatre (Cottesloe), London

American academic Jack Exley (Matthew Marsh) goes to Rwanda to do research for a book. It is early 1994, but such is the ignorance in the West of the situation there, let alone what is about to happen, that Jack arranges for his wife and son to join him.

Jack’s wife Linda (Tanya Moodie) is also a writer, and describes her technique as waiting for some small detail to catch her attention, that she can then use as a way into a situation, unravelling this one thing until she finds a more universal truth. Shortly after explaining her approach to writing, she tries to buy a cabbage from a stall, and is aided by an English-speaking passer-by who turns out to have studied in Illinois, where Linda is from. He tells the stall-holder about the coincidence, and the three share a moment of inter-cultural bonhomie. Then Linda asks the man to ask the price of a cabbage. He tells her not to buy one from this woman. Why not? ‘Because she is a filthy Tutsi whore.’

This is one of those theatrical moments contrived to change instantly the atmosphere in the audience, making us self-conscious and underlining the political character of our engagement with the play, written by JT Rogers and directed by Max Stafford-Clark. We are shocked and appalled. And perplexed. Here is a seemingly trivial event that certainly catches our attention, and forces us to confront awkward and uncomfortable questions. We know that hundreds of thousands of people were killed at close quarters in this part of Africa in 1994, that the very name ‘Rwanda’ has become a byword for ‘genocide’. But in truth most of us don’t understand Rwanda now any more than Jack does at the start of the play.

Amid the recriminations about what the West should have done, it is too easy to fall into the trap of saying the killing happened because the West failed to intervene, and wallowing in liberal guilt. But this makes no more sense than saying the war in former Yugoslavia happened because the Indians and Chinese didn’t step in. Lurking behind much of the discussion has always been the unspoken assumption that, to paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for Africans to do evil is that the West does nothing. To its credit, The Overwhelming for the most part avoids such ‘Heart of Darkness’ prejudice, and tries to explore how it is that human beings like us could commit such acts.

That’s a tall order, however, and I too would rather write a play about it than an essay. The Overwhelming doesn’t have a theory of its own. Linda talks to a French diplomat who is something of a cartoon villain (played with a suitably cartoonish accent by Nick Fletcher) with his unreconstructed imperialist opinion that Africans have shown themselves incapable of self-government. But Linda doesn’t have a counter-argument, and, knowing what happened next, the audience is in an even tougher position. If one accepts that the West should have sent in troops to stop the killing, it is hard to avoid endorsing some version of paternalism. ‘Stop the killing, and worry about the political implications later’, one might have said at the time. Well, we didn’t stop the killing, but it is later. The Overwhelming is an invitation to reflect on some hard questions.

There is some discussion of the legacy of colonialism, which is dismissed by the French diplomat, but the fact that the categories of Tutsi and Hutu were invented and institutionalised by Belgian colonialists, for example, is not so easily dismissed. The more recent role of the French in backing the Hutu government against the Uganda-based and largely Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) also comes up (though other Western powers’ support of the RPF does not). Most of these insights come from Dr Joseph Gasana (Jude Akuwudike), Jack’s old college room-mate. But Joseph, who is The Overwhelming’s central Rwandese character, is no more than a ghostly presence for most of the play. He is supposed to be the focus of Jack’s book, but he is missing. He hovers around the action unseen by the other characters, and reads the letters he has been sending to Jack for the benefit of the audience.

Joseph is a Tutsi, and his disappearance is Jack’s first sign of the impending horror. While ostensibly we are introduced to Joseph through Jack, and see him as the good guy for that reason, in fact we bring our own knowledge and assumptions to the play. When Jack, not understanding what is about to happen, begins to doubt his friend, it is Jack who loses our sympathy. The device of using a Western family as a way in for the audience is frustrated by our prior knowledge.

This needn’t be a bad thing, however. At one stage we learn that the bodies of Tutsis have been found at a village outside Kigali, the men hacked to death and the women’s Achilles tendons cut, to prevent them from running away between rapes. This is horrific, but instead of revelling in moral outrage, it it chastening to remember that it was stories just like this, but with the ‘ethnicities’ reversed, that fuelled the slaughter. Local radio stations across Rwanda warned Hutus that the RPF was invading from Uganda and their Tutsi neighbours would slaughter them. Even as they killed those neighbours, the Hutu perpetrators thought they were the victims. There were just enough true stories to fuel the hysteria. Indeed, the American family’s servant Gerard (Babou Ceesay) is a Hutu whose family have been killed by Tutsis in Burundi.

Unfortunately if unsurprisingly, however, the play never really makes us understand how someone like Gerard could find himself taking part in such awful slaughter. (While Danny Sapani’s ‘Hutu extremist’ politician comes across as nothing less than smarmily evil from the start.) In the programme there is a quotation from Primo Levi, who survived the Nazi holocaust, suggesting that ‘it could happen anywhere’. But this isn’t really true. What happened in Europe during the Second World War was fundamentally different from what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Whatever horrors occur at any time and place arise from the particular circumstances of that time and place, rather than from an enduring stain on the heart of man, or an atavistic urge that has to be suppressed, as some people seem to believe. It is easy to say ‘Never again’, much harder to know what you’re talking about.

It is the less explicitly political aspect of The Overwhelming that approaches this truth. In another context, Jack’s teenage son Geoffrey’s tangle with a young Rwandan woman would have been a charming rite of passage. But the situation doesn’t lend itself to such familiar tropes; ‘this isn’t fucking Sweden’, as the American characters remind each other, and you can’t just reproduce American life here. The reality of a rich American teenager paying an African woman to fellate him is no more romantic than it sounds - or indeed looks on stage. Geoffrey cracks when he realises his ‘relationship’ is intrinsically unequal and consequently twisted: ‘This country!’ This country at this time, its internal politics, its relations with other countries. The Overwhelming lets us share the frustrations of an American family trapped in a hell they don’t understand, but we shouldn’t conclude that understanding is impossible.

Touring England in September and October 2006.



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