Ruined (Theatre Review)
If anything has stirred my soul this year, with the exception of some moments of personal pain, it would most definitely and without a shadow of doubt, be Ruined. The Pulitzer Prize winning play by Lyn Nottage. It opened my heart and conscience to think the same way, Paul Grootboom’s Townships Stories, made me think differently about South Africa and Da Kink In My Hair, compelled me to see the strength of women when we come together, to help each other. It is a production I was eager to see based on what I had heard and read on different websites while it was making the rounds in the US. When I heard it was coming to London, I was ecstatic. Needless to say, my expectations were met.
Set in a small mining town in the DRC, Ruined is about the lives of four women whose paths cross because of their similar life experiences. It is a story that puts a face on the use of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC, the way the news media may not always do. It humanises the people who have become statistics in our newspapers and television news report over the years. We hear their voices, feel their pain and see their strength, and we empathise not sympathise with them.
A self explanatory title, Ruined tells the story of Mama Nadi, Josephine, Sophie and Salima, women whose lives have been taken away by actions they had no control over yet, they do what they can to keep going.
Sophie and Salima, played respectively by Pippa Bennett-Warner and Michelle Asante, come to live with Mama Nadi after they have been ‘ruined’ by the soldiers, Salima is rejected by her husband and family. While, Sophie is in a similar position, she has been left with the name tag of ‘damaged goods’ after her vagina was mutilated with a bayonet by the soldiers. Mama Nadi is a savvy woman who knows where to draw the line between business and friendship. When the girls first arrive at her brothel, she is not too impressed, stating a ruined girl is of no use to her. A strong character carried with great gusto by Jenny Jules, she owns Mama Nadi’s bar where the soldiers, militia and government, and the foreigners who trade in gems, come to drink and unwind with Mama Nadi’s girls. She also knows how to keep everyone under control in her bar. You come into her bar, you must disarm in order to be served and whenever the soldiers want to run amuck, she lays down the law, telling them, ‘I make the rules,’ you either obey or find another place to drink. A point best demonstrated when she grabs the balls of one of the soldiers who was running his mouth.
Written with great sensitivity, Nottage truly brings the plight of the Congolese women to the forefront of her play. Sophie’s account of what was done to her is so moving, you wonder how we as human beings can inflict such pain on each other, forgetting the victims carry the scars for the rest of their lives, no matter how much they want to forget. Salima’s monologue, as she narrates the five months she spent in the forest with the militias who tied her to a tree like a goat, passed her from one man to the other and turned her into a sex toy is so enthralling, you have no choice but to imagine what the women who live their lives in fear, day in and day out, knowing such evil is lurking in their land feel. She informs us that she was torn to pieces and left raw and then she asked, ‘how can men be this way?’ It is one of the most thought-provoking moments I have seen on the stage this year.
Josephine, one of Mama Nadi’s other girls is a young woman with a big mouth, who is also broken but refuses to be a victim and covers up her pain with a braggadocios attitude. An energetic character, full of life in spite of her pain, Kehinde Fadipe brings a lot of zest to this role with another very poignant scene as Josephine is dancing for one of her customers, the music and rhythm takes her back to the source of her pain.
Nottage’s language is colourful, humourous and luminous, she does not spell everything out for us. We are able to work with her to figure out things for ourselves. She gives you that power as a theatre-goer to understand the story for yourself and make-up your mind about what you think of the situation she has presented to you. Her adept brilliance in crafting this story laced with symbolic actions to help us understand the characters is more than impressive. It is perfect – she uses music and dance as a way of escapism for the characters as they try to forget about the adverse effects the raging war that keeps redefining itself, is having on their land. I totally appreciate the fact that she did not get political with Ruined either. We understood the politics of the land without her playing to it. She gives us rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses, and they struggle with the same issues you and I could very well be dealing with.
Through Sophie and Salima, Nottage gives us two sensitive women, who defy the odds with an inner strength they have to rediscover in order to find themselves again. Bernnett-Warner and Asante truly put on an emotional and believable performance and we see how delicate and fragile both women are, yet they support each other. While Luciam Msamati gives an outstanding performance as Christian, Mama Nadi’s friend and Sophie’s uncle. He is also a very animated man, who brings much needed humourous relief to the intensity of the play.
You could question Mama Nadi’s character as a person who does not help the girls if she is also offering then to the soldiers, to sexually service them. However, she does not claim to be Mother Theresa. She is fully aware of her bargaining chips and so, the girls know what they are in for, just like they know, they have no where else to go. Mama Nadi is is the epitome of a woman who has her ways of staying alive during a crisis.
Indu Rubasingham directs Ruined with a touch of humanity. She brings out every emotion in her company of actors, you leave the theatre with a sense of hope and assurance about the power of our conscience. Rob Jones gives us one of the most authentic theatre stage I have seen. It is so real with the bar/brothel house built from zinc, birds chirping away and palm trees, you are literally transported into the Congo jungle.
There is something about the ability and power of the stage to make life as real as possible the way the news media does not always capture. Theatre does not limit you or tell you that you must be balanced, you can let what you feel, think and see rest on the page, the way you deem fit while allowing your audience to make-up their own mind as to what they think and feel about the same issues you have raised.
Ruined is one of the most profound and poignant theatre productions I have seen this year. Lyn Nottage has joined my list of favourite female playwrights alongside Suzan-Lori Parks.
Note: As of 29 April 2010, Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s Special Representative on sexual conflict, described the DRC as ‘the rape capital of the world.’ According to the UN, over 8,000 were raped in 2009 during the fighting. If this isn’t scary, then I don’t know what is.
Listen to Nottage and Ban Ki Moon talk about Ruined
Images: Tristram Kenton
1 – Cast Members dancing
2 – Christian (Lucian Msamati) and Mama Nadi (Jenny Jules)
3 – Sophie (Pippa Barnett-Warner) and Mama Nadi (Jenny Jules)
Image of Lyn Nottage: Time Out, New York, website
Ruined is at the Almeida Theatre until Sat 5 June 2010: Almeida Theatre