Arcola Theatre and Oscar Pearce
The people of the Congo ought to be incredibly wealthy. In the late 19th century they were providing a good deal of the world’s rubber and today another section of the Congo is a key source of cobalt which at this very moment might be ensuring your iPhone functions.
Unfortunately, the world preferred to subject the Congo to appalling atrocities as it looted this wealth rather than allow its people to benefit from these resources.
Sasha Hails’s thoughtful play links together the stories of two British missionaries at a rubber plantation in King Leopold’s Belgian Congo with contemporary journalists investigating the conflicts in cobalt-rich Congo via the character of the young British woman Hope, who is of Congolese heritage.
The show opens with her birth on a London bus pulling into Victoria Station. “You can’t have a baby on my bus,” says the driver in a panic to her mother Kasambayi (Sarah Amankwah), who recently arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But she does give birth to the child she names Hope Victoria.
At age sixteen, Hope becomes pregnant and drops out of school. Alice Young (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), a journalist feeling agitated by her own child in a baby changing room, is helped by Hope whom she subsequently hires to be an assistant on an assignment to the Congo.
At a protest demonstration with another journalist, John Dent (Milo Twomey), outside a cobalt mine notorious for using child labour, Alice is almost killed by a bullet fired by the authorities.
Hope herself, back in the farmhouse where she and Alice stay, also seems vulnerable given she is dating an investigative journalist (Nedum Okonyia).
The play consists of numerous short scenes, some of which take us back to an imagined account of the real-life 19th century missionary Alice Seeley-Harris (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), whose documentary photographs of the Belgium murder and mutilations of Congolese people who hadn’t produced enough rubber prompt protest back in Britain. The play recreates the moment when a mourning villager, Nsala, brings her to photograph a bundle containing the severed hand and foot of a child. (We are told the contents rather than shown them.)
This is an ambitious, well-performed play that held the audience’s attention throughout. Although the account of the two Alices' relationships with men signals aspects of gender inequality, it occupied space that might have been better used to develop further the central character of Hope, given a fine performance by Diany Bandza, and the political narrative of the cruel struggle in the Congo for possession of its wealth.
Kasambayi, who opened the play, also ends it. At a standing microphone, she makes a moving speech that brings tears to the eyes of a number of those in the audience.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna