Review: Like Enemies of the State by BeFrank Theatre

The latest show by BeFrank, who define themselves as an international theatre company, is Like Enemies of the State – a journey into the world of child-soldiers based on Writer / Director Tommy Lexen‘s research and experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much of the text is taken from interviews with former child soldiers, as well as with villagers, representatives of NGOs, the UN and the Congolese Government and, as such, is mainly verbatim theatre, with some dramatisation to break the narrative. Performed in the round, with a cast of four, it places the audience uncomfortably close to the action, and within the squallor and privation of the setting, which only serves to enhance the message it clearly wants to convey.

However, the framing of the piece, with the four actors delivering a cacophony of headlines and press reports at the beginning and end, and deliberately changing into and out of costume to tell the story, together with the anecdotal nature of much of the text, felt too Brechtian in its approach to affect its audience as much as it otherwise might have. ‘Stand back’, it seemed to be saying. ‘Listen to the stories, imagine the emotional cost. Sympathise, but don’t empathise.’

Nevertheless, this was a compelling piece of theatre, and particularly effective when it allowed itself to dramatise the story, rather than using reportage. Duane Palmer gave a very strong performance in a variety of roles as the adults in the piece, switching gear suddenly, and very genuinely, from savage oppressor to objective reporter, to indifferent politician. Vikash Bhai captured beautifully the simplicity of a child who takes the horrors he has experienced for granted, and both actors displayed an impressive range of accents. Luiana Bonfim juxtaposed boyish innocence with chilling subject-matter, but her presence within the cast, as well as the occasional reference to young girls kidnapped to become soldier’s ‘girlfriends’, gave a tantalising glimpse of another dimension which was never fully realised. I couldn’t help but feel that a female perspective would have enriched an essentially narrow subject focus.

The staging was good, and the only device that didn’t really work was the use of a hand-held, live-stream video camera, which attempted to convey the point of view of the American documentary maker. If the images had been projected onto the clothes on the washing line, as with the other projections, it might have worked very well to add another dimension. But, instead, they went to a monitor in a corner of the stage, out of view of many of the audience, and too small for the pictures to be seen at any distance, which negated the dramatic device almost entirely, which was a shame.

Hiroko Matsuo’s design was particularly effective, strewing the floor with garments and bits of costume until it resembled a rubbish-dump, and framing the space with clothes-lines which were also used to display projected images, moving backdrops, information and translations. William Ingham must be commended for his lighting design, which created a range of subtle atmospheres, in the round, while avoiding flaring out the projections – no mean feat, especially in such a small space. Tommy Lexen’s direction was assured and the fight sequences, directed by Myles Marshall, hit just the right balance between stylisation and authenticity to maximise their impact.

Like Enemies of the State takes its title from a first-hand account of how the boys were treated by their villages and families when they returned home, having escaped the ranks of the militias, and it was this perspective that lifted the piece from interesting to truly worthwhile. Rather than merely recounting an horrific situation, it gave a real insight into how and why it continues to prevail, despite international efforts to stop it, and hit home the message that, until poverty and hunger are addressed, until the children are valued as children, life in a militia will often be preferable to life on the streets. For the boys, at least.

 Like Enemies of the State is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until Saturday 26th October 2013. Go see it!

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