So the ending was less sentimental than I’d anticipated from reading the text—in part because the amazing Jenny Jones managed to reveal Mama Nadi’s vulnerability and pain without sacrificing any of her toughness; in part because the equally superb Lucian Msamati did not overplay Christian’s white knight qualities; and especially because director Indhu Rubasingham wisely choreographed the closing dance between the two not as a full-on, full-contact swoon, but rather as a tentative shuffle, with plenty of distance kept between the two actors on stage. Hope is contained within that space, to be sure—which was playwright Lynn Nottage’s stated intention in parting from Brecht’s epic theatrical principles (Ruined is consciously modeled on Mother Courage and Her Children). However, hope’s easy and rapid fulfillment for these two damaged souls—as, indeed, for all the victims of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is by no means certain. In fact, my only critique about the ending of the play is that the parrot’s final words—“Mama, Primus. Mama, Primus”—were not articulated clearly enough, and with enough of a temporal jolt, to effect what I read in the text as a return, from the anomalous display on Mama Nadi’s part of emotion and sentimentality, to the Brechtian world of commerce (Primus is the brand of beer that Mama Nadi sells to her customers at her bar/brothel).
As for the rest of the play, what I was pleased to see was how generous the play is in performance to the secondary characters. Even those with few lines in the text (such as Fortune’s fellow soldier-friend, Simon, played by recent RADA graduate Damola Adelaja) are given a chance to take centre stage and reveal their full complexity. Strikingly, the character that comes across as most cipher-like in this production is Mr. Harari, the foreign diamond merchant who, when the going gets tough and he can no longer figure out whom to bribe, absconds with Mama Nadi’s “insurance policy”—and, consequently, what Sophie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) sees as her one chance at redemption. As played by Silas Carson—no slouch as an actor—Harari doesn’t seem to have anything to do. Which is, perhaps, the whole point, Rubasingham no doubt attuned to the fact that Carson is the only white actor (though it should be pointed out that the character of Mr. Harari is actually Lebanese, which is supposed to add a bit of complexity to his take on the civil war in the DRC) amongst an otherwise all-black cast, thus visually reinforcing his character’s “unbelonging” in this world. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special kudos going to Michelle Asante as Salima, whose devastating Act 2 speech about her abduction and serial rape and climactic, self-immolating gesture of defiance are even more powerful when embodied on the stage as they appear on the page. The tall and striking Kehinde Fadipe imbues the somewhat underwritten part of Josephine with memorable self-presence (especially in her Act 2, Scene 1 dance), and David Ajala makes Fortune’s lament for the wife he’s lost to the double violence of rape and the subsequent shame he himself heaped upon her seem heartfelt and sincere.
My only real complaint about the play, after seeing it in performance, is that the songs seem to get lost. I’m not sure if this was a result of the sound amplification within the relatively intimate space of the Almeida, but it was not always easy to hear the words of the songs that Sophie is given to sing. And this is a shame, because as with Brecht they offer important commentary on the action we are witnessing on stage. The reprise of “A Rare Bird” at the end, consigned as it is to the radio in this production, combined with what I identify above as the lost opportunity with the parrot, robs this otherwise excellent mounting of Nottage’s searing play of what I see as the more nuanced—although no less forceful—nature of its political and social indictment of the history of gendered violence in war.