Chaos by Design

Fri 2nd – Sat 17th August 2013


Anjali Joseph

at 01:24 on 8th Aug 2013



Rats Nest Theatre Company’s ‘Chaos by Design’ explores Africa’s “forgotten war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where both sides of the civil war use rape as a weapon. The production began by showing the face of the Congo as it is often presented to outsiders, with the charismatic Emmanuel Lawal cheerfully drumming and engaging the latecomers in the audience in witty banter as they arrived. Slowly this facade was stripped back to reveal a more brutal version of experience in the Congo, and was reflected in Lawal’s transformation.

As well as highlighting the atrocities committed against women in the Congo, this piece also criticises the culture of privileged Westerners who engage in poverty tourism. However, there were moments where their intention was unclear or even slightly confused. The character of June (Raynar Rogers) was described in the programme as forming an “unlikely” bond with Angelique, implying that there is some sense of "Otherness" that naturally divides them. Moreover, there were inconsistencies in the way her character was written; although she was responsible for articulating much of the criticism against Western apathy regarding Africa, she was also (seemingly unwittingly) made into a type-A victim of a self-righteous White-Saviour complex.

There were strong performances from the cast, most notably Benedict Lombe, who both directs this production and plays the role of Angelique. She is evidently a very talented actor, and her final monologue was beautifully acted and harrowing to watch. Equally, Emmanuel Lawal was convincingly sinister in the role of the outwardly jovial, abusive uncle. In terms of directional decisions, there were some genuinely disturbing moments in this production, notably the simulated rape scene and the extended recording of the rape of Angelique’s mother. These were powerful images, but this didn’t feel like a play; at times it more closely resembled an educational talk, illustrated by some acting. The regularly used device of audio clips from news reports which were played in the darkness between scenes, whilst the actors formed tableaux on stage, lost its impact with each use. The writing was slightly heavy-handed and, whilst this is clearly a show with an important message, the recourse to shock tactics actually cheapened this.

The subject matter of this production definitely could have been presented in a more nuanced manner. Nevertheless, powerful individual performances and a fundamentally relevant focus make this a production that merits being seen, engaged with and debated.


James Cetkovski

at 10:03 on 8th Aug 2013



There is a culture of rape in Congo, ‘an entire lifestyle built around rape’; the goal of this lifestyle is ‘to destroy women’s minds and replace them with fear and worthlessness.’ So June (Raynar Rogers), a photojournalist working in Africa, argues anyway. She makes this argument at the very beginning of ‘Chaos by Design’ and continues to make it insistently for the rest of the hour.

I don’t have a problem with the argument; I have a problem with there being an argument at all. A production kills any organic quality its drama might possess once it tells its audience how to think.

June befriends Angelique (Benedict Lombe), a Congolese rape victim, and we’re shown various interactions with a couple of different predatory men, both played by Emmanuel Lawal. None of the above live as individuals. June is never more than a photojournalist; Angelique is never more than a rape victim; the men are never more than rapists. The characters are meant to be archetypes, to stand for all victims and all predators. ‘Who is she?’ June asks, staring at a violated corpse. ‘She is everyone,’ is the reply. How do you create a compelling drama about everyone? You can’t. Audiences engage emotionally with individuals, not symbols. And certainly not arguments.

Why not? Because we see and hear arguments all the time. We read them in newspapers, we hear them on the radio, we see them on the news, online, they’re everywhere—and we’re conditioned to absorb the information without absorbing the suffering. We couldn’t; it would destroy us if we did. Drama has the power to shatter this conditioning for a short while, to make the suffering real.

‘Chaos by Design’ misuses this power, though it takes a few paragraphs to explain why. Here goes: There are two simulated rapes in the production, one of which is overheard, one of which is acted in front of us. They’re traumatising. Horrible. My hand still isn’t steady and it’s been more than an hour. Everyone is the audience looked stupefied at the end; it’s impossible to act normally after watching something like that.

But this isn’t evidence of quality or depth. Any production that shows rape with a commitment to verisimilitude will affect its audience in this way. Rape is always horrific. The production has dramatised attacks, but it hasn’t dramatised anything that gives insight into the formation of this culture of rape that precipitated them. It hasn’t dramatised anything about the Congo. It hasn’t even dramatised the ‘replacement of women’s minds by fear and worthlessness’—it’s only told us about it.

This is how they misuse power: They don’t go far enough. I don’t object to the dramatisation of rape; I object to the production’s unwillingness to dramatise anything else. ‘Chaos by Design’ hits hard just by virtue of the rape scenes. Imagine the power of a play about rape in the Congo that allows its characters to live as individuals instead of archetypes, that shows unbearable suffering instead of lecturing about it. ‘Chaos by Design’ should have hit way harder.


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