Review of R&D theatre at Pinter Studio, London 

Suraya Bains 

        With soaring music followed by the sudden jump by the Announcer onto the platform in  the middle of the stage, we are thrown into the peak of propaganda on RTML radio. The  Hutu broadcaster encourages social division and the demonisation of Tutsi minorities in  1994 Rwanda. It was disconcerting to hear the Tutsi people being cast off as ‘cockroaches’ in such a zealous evangelical voice. This was the backdrop for Agathe Uwilingiyimana in the mid-1990s, a chemistry professor, advocate for women’s  education, and peace activist who wanted to have power shared between the Hutu and  Tutsi people. Her progressive views were not widely respected, however, and instead  we learn that she is on a ‘hit list’. In any genocidal situation, the sensible are swept  away, some unfortunate enough to be killed in the tirade.  Although we don’t yet know Agathe’s fate in the drama, there is a foreboding  atmosphere that contrasts markedly with the beautiful landscape of Rwanda that  Agathe points out through her window, untouched by industries and western powers as  there are no minerals, oil, shoreline or ‘strategic American interest’ in the country.  These were the main reasons why the few UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda had such  little support from the international community at a time of dire need. Even calling  5,000 extra troops to keep the peace was beyond consideration. Instead, the simmering  climate was left to boil over into a bloodbath – to be triggered by an event that soon  came to light. 

The suspense is gripping. We see Agathe agonising over what to do with her  family while she tries to forge some kind of alternative path. We see how she has  already been tortured for her views when she reveals the shocking scars on her legs. We  learn about what youth are doing to women in the market, literally making them crawl  like cockroaches as they abuse them in full public light. But the window for peace gets  darker and darker until that fated day when the trigger - that is, the assassination of the Tutsi president in an aeroplane – launched a full-on killing spree where not even  children at church were safe. 

Nowadays, hardly anyone knows about Agathe’s life and her role as a President  for less than one day, eclipsed as it was by the brutality of the massacre. This play makes an impressive impression to ensure Agathe’s name is not erased from the  chronicles. The music by Tarun Jasani was of a cinematic quality, underlining the fact  that the play could well be a contender for an epic film, easily throwing the Hollywood  movie, Hotel Rwanda, out of the frame. 

Despite the horrors of history, there are some moments of relief in an excellently  crafted script by Angela J Davis. It was a winner of several awards including a finalist in  the prestigious Jane Chambers award and a new scriptwriting competition, Rise Against  Fanaticism Through the Arts (RAFTA), launched by Sohaya Visions and Mukul & Ghetto  Tigers in 2022, who then decided to take Agathe to this stage. The dialogue flows with  erudite humour, imparting important information to orientate without bogging the audience down. Agathe’s expertise in chemistry is dexterously applied to her love for  cake-baking as it is to comments on the colonial legacy of ‘race science’: ‘Here, in this  country, I am colourless. Like most organic compounds. Colourless, that is, until one  “introduces” another element. Like when a European introduced sulphates and potash  to the blackest coal tar, and voilĂ : Killer shades of purple! The perfect dyes for silks,  woollens, oil paint, mascara.’ 

Skilfully directed by Mukul Ahmed, the abridged play has stellar performances  from the cast especially Natasha Bain for the irrepressible Agathe; Alexandra Ricou for  the idealistic UN peacekeeper; Jordon Kemp for his agitated efforts as the commanding  officer, Addie; Matthew Faucher for his dual switches between the toxic Announcer and  Agathe’s sweet yet cynical son; and David Rawlins as Mbaye – a smooth Senegalese army captain with a ‘killer smile’ – a feature that was also factually corroborated in the  real life heroism where Mbaye saved so many people as elaborated in the Q&A discussion.  

The post-show panel included Dr Lyndsay McLean and Professor Shahaduz Zaman from the University of Sussex who had conducted research in Rwanda from the  1990s and responded to the coproducer’s, Raminder Kaur, questions with much insight.  They pointed out that despite the sensitivity of the subject and how it continues to raise  difficult issues, the play tread the grounds ‘successfully’. Remarks were also made by the audience on ‘the way all the elements were interwoven so wonderfully’, about how  the ‘whole experience opened my eyes’, how the history of Agathe should be ‘spoken  about and part of the education system’ and ‘I learnt a lot about something and someone  I didn’t know anything about’. This play definitely needs to get out to more people  everywhere. Agathe provokes, entertains and educates all at the same time, making for  an unforgettable evening.

Photos by Tarun Jasani


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