“People come here to leave behind whatever mess they made out there”
Working in partnership with Amnesty International, the Almeida theatre gives us the European premiere of Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winning play from Lynn Nottage. It is set at Mama Nadi’s, a bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama runs her bar with a rod of iron, serving anyone who will pay, no matter what side they are fighting for, along as they leave their weapons and their politics at the bar. As the civil war encroaches ever nearer and two new arrivals who have suffered particularly badly at the hands of soldiers, she is forced to reassess her life of providing women and whiskey without question and decide if it is enough.
As Mama Nadi, Jenny Jules is excellent. She’s rarely off-stage and holds the whole play together with her irrepressible hostessing, able to charm any customer yet possessed of an indomitable spirit, no soldier, no matter how threatening, gets past her with a weapon and she rules over her girls with a rod of iron. Starting off like Brecht’s Mother Courage, a similar profiteer from wartime chaos, her motivations remain mostly ambiguous but as events catch up with her, she becomes much more emotionally engaged. Jules is supported extremely well by Pippa Bennett-Warner as Sophie, bright and beautiful yet ‘ruined’ by a bayonet, Michelle Asante as Salima, gang-raped by soldiers but then even more painfully, shunned by her husband and Kehinde Fadipe as Josephine, the most sexually confident of the three but just as damaged. Together, they form an uncompromising group of women, scarred both inside and out by rebel soldiers, government soldiers, even their own families, and only able to dream of what might be in the (relative) safety of each other’s company.
The staging is really atmospheric, the recreation of the African jungle with seemingly huge depth is highly effective and Mama’s shack, perched on a revolve is also impressively mounted. One side is consistently dressed as the bar whilst the other alternates between the exterior of the bar and the bedroom of one of the girls. The speed with which these changes are smoothly executed is astonishing and the stagehands ought to be congratulated, it is most impressive.
Far be it from me to disagree with Pulitzer Prize judges, but I did find the writing veered uncomfortably towards the clunky. With performances of such rawness and honesty, overly melodramatic lines like “you’re the first girl bold enough to steal from me” and “men will no longer fight wars on my body” stuck out like sore thumbs, leaving one wishing Ms Nottage had stuck closer to the testimonies of the Congolese women she interviewed in writing this piece. And the second half is a little too full of statements of position at the expense of the genuinely engaging ensemble scenes we’ve witnessed earlier on.
And I just felt the whole thing could have been edited down into a much tighter entity: the subplot about the rough diamond added very little, the singing in the bar scenes went on for far too long, considering very little actually happened in them, even Salima’s powerful account of her truly harrowing experiences begins to lose its impact as it is overextended. Personally I was not a fan of the final scene, I found its revelations unsurprising as they had been clunkily telegraphed earlier on and slightly annoyed by its need to explain Mama’s motivations, her morally ambiguous tone (which I was happy with as it was to be honest) and the way it resolves things, given the attitude to men displayed throughout the rest of the play.
Still, this is an important piece of drama, giving voice to those who are most affected by endless, senseless conflict but yet who are most often ignored, and is a testament to the endurance of their human spirit that forces life to continue and be bearable in the face of terrible circumstances. Well-acted, thought-provoking (I still can’t decide how I feel about being sold to a brothel being the best possible life for women) and genuinely engaging, Ruined is not without its faults, but this is highly recommended theatre.