Did you know that the phone you carry around in your pocket all day contains coltan, a mineral that's one of the main sources of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo? I didn't. Or if I did, I must have forgotten by the time I reached for my phone to post an earnest status about it.
They Drink It In the Congo is a new play confronting the hypocrisies that come from a long and painful relationship between the DRC and the West. Written by Adam Brace and directed by Michael Longhurst, it explores the complex subject of the country's conflict through what looks to be a funny, provocative piece of theatre with a big dose of self-awareness.
I caught up with Adam and Michael to talk about the ideas in play, and why it's actually pretty hard to do something good about something bad.
VICE: What's the play about?
Adam Brace: It's about British people attempting to organise a festival to draw attention to the problems in the DRC.
Adam, how did you become interested in the conflict in the DRC?
AB: A Congolese friend of my family started talking to me about his home country one day and I decided to research it and get more interested in it. I got some funding to go to the Congo. I'm a pasty parasite for geo-political pain.
Michael, what made you want to work on the play?
Michael Longhurst: I'd directed Adam's first play Stovepipe and was itching to get my hands on his next one. He writes very funny, very muscular plays.
By staging the play in London, is the production in some ways trying to do what the festival within the play is trying to do?
ML: Yeah, I think I would say the gesture of staging an authentic Congolese festival is similar to the gesture of staging an authentic production about Congo. It's very tricky. Both are governed by an understanding of the impossibility of being authentic, but that doesn't necessarily undo the value of the thing you're trying to do. Both the play and the festival within the play are exploring how hard it is to do something good that's not just online tweeting and liking.
AB: The play is dramatising the impossibility of an authentic event in its circumstances. It's going to be an inauthentic event and it begins with a speech that accepts that. It's an argument against itself. That's the idea.
The West has a long and complicated relationship with the DRC. As theatre makers, how do you start to explore that?
AB: Historically, we've always used resources from the Congo, back to the slave trade.
ML: And that's why some of the characters in the play have such a hard line against anything associated with parliament, because they would suggest that our government is, if not actively supporting, at least condoning the things that exploit their country.
ML: The troubling thing for me to learn was that it's the second poorest country in the world and it's one of the richest in terms of its mineral resources. There's trillions of dollars worth of minerals under there. That disparity is a mind-fuck.
AB: And the other big mind-fuck is when you realise that the country has been a source of the rubber for our Industrial Revolution, the uranium that was used in the Hiroshima bomb, and now minerals like coltan that make our mobile devices incredibly light. They effectively supplied our Industrial Revolution and now they're supplying China's.
Did some of those hypocrisies cross your mind when you were, say, emailing the creative team on your smartphone?
ML: That was my first reaction. The irony of a festival that uses online social media to promote itself – that's how a lot of charity engagement is done now, with likes and follows. And the fact that these objects have coltan in them at first seems crazy and like it undermines the whole thing.
But it's a much more complex issue. The Dodd-Frank law that was passed in America was trying to make companies accountable for their supply chains, but what happened was that all the companies went Congo-free rather than conflict-free; they crashed the economy and actually caused more destruction. So that understanding of how to help, especially when there's all the colonial associations of what that means, is what the play is trying to unpick and navigate.
It feels relevant that you're two white men making a play about the conflict in DRC for an audience in North London.
AB: It's very relevant. It's a massive part of the play.
ML: For me, the fact that Adam is acutely aware of his white lens, and is interrogating that, means that I feel justified in the attempt to explore this play. Congo is routinely described as the worst place in the world. What is an appropriate artistic response to that? Is squeezing out a load of tears from some middle class people the answer? I think this play is acutely aware of the fact that it's not. So in terms of content, it's wrestling with all of that.
AB: Because it's a live theatre event, it doesn't float above context in the way that a novel or a film can to some extent. This is written to take place in a very specific socio-political context. That's partly why it has such a studiedly flippant title and not something like The Red Earth and the Wide Sky.
ML: In terms of staging it, I guess the same is true of the actors. None of the cast is of Congolese heritage, so it's a leap for everyone. I think there can be an assumption that Black British actors can automatically play African, but that's a presumption and a generalisation. Most of the cast are playing a variety of characters, so there's a phenomenal amount of accent-swapping and hat-changing. We're conscious of the fact that we are doing our best to tell a story that's not ours, and to see if that's useful.
I think writers and theatre makers should be able to tell whatever story they want. But do we have more of a responsibility when those stories are not our own?
ML: I guess your right is justified by the care you put into doing it. We absolutely should be held up for scrutiny and there are moments in the production process when we fail and there'll be moments when we get it right. There have been so many times already when I've felt like the central protagonist of the play in my effort to stage this play, which is fascinating.
AB: When you're doing this sort of thing, there's always a risk that you can be accused – accurately – of cultural appropriation. But that's one of the things the play is asking about.
Did you invite anyone to share their stories in the rehearsal room?
ML: We had someone in from Human Rights Watch who shared her experiences of actually being out there and getting on the back of a bike or walking for days to go and meet people and bear testimony to their stories. She's had guns held to her head, she's spoken to warlords, she has been in these villages shortly after very severe events, and it's astonishing. When you hear what she's doing, you feel so conscious of what you're doing as a play-stager. And yet, hopefully, it's in some way transmuting that experience through the comedy and the anarchism.
You've both worked on plays that explore challenging subjects. On an emotional level, how do you pick up and let go of each project?
ML: For me, one of the gifts of being a director of new writing is that you get to become a mini-expert – and I use "expert" in the loosest sense – because you get thrown this challenge of trying to find a way to tell the story. I've met the most amazing experts. And I've found myself going from the person who turns over the pages in the Metro because it's saturation to saying, "let's do a play about it."
AB: I don't know yet because I haven't let go of this one.
They Drink It In the Congoruns 12th August – 1st October at the Almeida Theatre.