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A CurtainUp London Review
Indhu Rubasingham has created a memorable production about the bar brothel run by Mama Nadi played by Jenny Jules, who also took the lead role in Lynn Nottage's comedy Fabulation, also directed by Ms Rubasingham when it played here at the Tricycle in London go here. The Congo atmosphere is helped by Robert Jones' wonderful revolving shanty set with its backdrop of charred jungle foliage and trees sharply illuminated as the set revolves.
At the beginning of the play, travelling salesman and supplier of Belgian chocolates, Christian (Lucian Msamati) arrives with two young women whom he wants Mama to take in. Sophie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is young and very pretty and is the daughter of Christian's sister but she is "ruined". Sophie has been raped and genitally mutilated by enemy soldiers with bayonets. Salima (Michelle Asante) has been rejected by her family. Their mentor, Josephine (Kehinde Fadipe) is the star sex worker with legs as long as any I have seen and who expertly gyrates in the laps of the clients, notably the diamond trader, Lebanese Mr Harari (Silas Carson).
So far Mama Nadi has survived the war, her good business sense and robustness protecting her in a dangerous situation where both government officials and rebels patronise her bar. She is a Mother Courage for the twenty first century but like Elyse Sommer in New York I found Nottage's Ruined a more gripping play than Brecht's epic cart dragger. These women may appear to be coping but not very far beneath the surface is the trauma of what they have suffered. Even Josephine who seems the most together will in one scene dance more and more frenetically and seem to be frantically batting off some invisible enemy.
A side story is that of Salima (Michelle Asante), the other girl who arrives with Sophie. After being held, tethered like a goat and used sexually by enemy soldiers, her farmer husband has rejected her. She says of him, "he was too proud to bear my shame but not proud enough to protect me from it." Now a soldier, he tracks her down and waits patiently outside the bar hoping to see her but Mama will not let him in. Mama knows that despite his assurances the marriage can never work with the memories as to what Salima has been through. There is the terrible regret that her husband was away buying a cooking pot when she and her child were taken by the enemy army.
Two onstage musicians play drums and guitar and Sophie sings to the clients. We see Christian, a reformed alcoholic descend into alcoholism but ultimately show us that human decency still exists. Lucian Msamati is an actor of great sensitivity and presence. Jenny Jules is magnificent, tight as steel wire as the complex Mama Nadi, but ultimately vulnerable and hurt. She tells us that she has built her business from nothing, "She stumbled off that road without two twigs to start a fire." It is deeply affecting to see the change in Nadi. Okezie Morro plays the rebel leader Jerome Kisembe and his enemy, Commander Osembenga (Steve Toussaint) swaggers in as the government minister, vanity personified in a bright yellow track suit. There are terrific performances from the cast of young women, Pippa Bennett-Walker, Michelle Asante and Kehinde Fadipe.
Comic moments, music and dance lighten the play so that the terror of war does not feel relentless and Nottage's ending has hope. Dramatically Ruined will raise awareness so that the charitable efforts helping the mutilated women of the Congo have reconstructive surgery will be hopefully supported. But this play is much more than a political message, it is great drama.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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