Lynn Nottage’s Ruined opened last night at the Almeida theatre, having crossed the Atlantic laden down with numerous American accolades and a coveted Pulitzer Prize. But Ruined seeks something more profound than a critic’s pat on the back and an abundance of star-littered notices; its purpose is to shake the audience and wake them up to the realities of a hidden weapon of mass destruction.
Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the play takes place in Mama Nadi’s establishment, where bullets must be left outside the door and the conflicts taking place in the fields beyond are only discussed; violence never crossing into her establishment.
In a somewhat twisted refuge for women, Mama employs 10 girls who have been taken off the dangerous streets outside to work for her in her bar and brothel in exchange for safety and food. Relying on travelling salesman Christian for supplies (and the occasional session of sexually charged banter), he provides her with watered down whisky, cigarettes and, from time to time, terrified women who have been witness to atrocities so great, a brothel is the only safe place for them to go.
Two such women arrive on Mama’s doorstep, shaking with fear and wearing blank faces masking the unthinkable experiences they have endured. Salima, a farmer’s wife separated from her husband and baby, was kept tied to a tree for five months, abused by soldiers whenever they so desired, while Sophie, Christian’s pretty niece, has nowhere to go after being thrown out of her village for ‘disrespecting’ her family by being raped so violently that she is now considered ‘ruined’ due to the physical damage caused. There they join the feisty Josephine, bargaining their safety in exchange for keeping soldiers happy in any way they so desire.
The peace of Mama Nadi’s is broken, however, when rebel soldiers arrive in town and soon take to the beds of her brothel. With tensions rising, Mama Nadi is forced to decide where her loyalties lie and how much she is willing to sacrifice for her girls in order to protect them from the fate they have already once suffered.
When writing Ruined, Nottage revisited the Democratic Republic of Congo and it is the women she spoke to there whose stories of rape and brutality we hear echoed on stage. These women are portrayed with powerful performances from Jenny Jules, who plays the proud and strident Mama Nadi, Pippa Bennett Warner as the quietly strong Sophie and Michelle Asante as the emotionally broken Salima.
Set on a rotating stage, the tin shack of Mama’s bar, covered in posters of Manchester United and brightly coloured African fabrics, evokes all the heat and atmosphere of the setting, where music and dancing can turn to danger and fear as quickly as it takes a stranger to enter through the cotton-draped door frame and announce his unwanted presence.
While Ruined is undoubtedly a harrowing and terrifying account of war, it is an undeniably important piece of theatre. The use of women in war, in such a violent and dignity-stripping way, is one that rarely makes the front pages of a newspaper. As the lights come up and the audience finds itself back in Islington’s safe hands, it would be hard to find one member who wasn’t shaken by the political education Nottage provides.