We begin with a very jolly looking man who is splashing away on a bongo drum and encouraging us to play a clapping game. It is rather like being in the Meadows after a terrible barbecue. But no, we are apparently channelling the spirit of the Congo.
By “the Congo,” I mean the Democratic Republic, which has been wracked by civil war and humanitarian disasters since the late 1990s. Yet Rat’s Nest Theatre has been founded by young activists from the University of Bournemouth. Their play “Chaos by Design” has been written by Benedict Lombe and Charlotte Raynar Rogers, who also star in this play at the Spaces on the Mile along with Emmanuel Lawal. “Chaos by Design” is certainly a bag of tricks: the actors can charm and amuse the audience; recite oratory in French; dabble in the quirky and the spooky; and pull off an unnerving, uncomfortable rape scene.
I would argue that the parts are greater than the whole. I like the scene in which Lawal’s character freezes time, which is at its happiest if regarded as a clever visual metaphor (for a street theft). I like the interaction between the characters and the general ambition to give aesthetic credence to what is basically an awareness-raising initiative. The rape scene was noisy and graphic, and my heart stopped throughout its duration, but it only taught me how little I actually know about this subject. It was incomprehensible.
I am suspicious of this sort of politics. For reasons which I cannot begin to understand, any war which features militias or undisciplined armies tends to result in many women being raped. Yet unlike the Balkans or Chechnya, the DRC has come to be targeted, by flocks of circling feminists, as a Special Case. The fact that the rapists are black men is surely just a coincidence, but it does correspond with those wild, nineteenth-century fantasies which had transformed black people into insatiable savages.
You cannot help but admire this production’s dedication to their activism and their imaginative account of injustice. Angelique (Lombe) is not simply a victim to be pitied: she is angry, idealistic, and resilient. But for us outrage or even awareness is not in itself a solution, and Rat’s Nest divulge no clue as to how DRC’s people, let alone a faraway Fringe audience, can overcome such a militaristic and misogynistic culture. To reach such an understanding would require both further detail and depth.