Setting a brutal account of the African tribal politics of places like Rwanda and Burundi against European liberal preconceptions, Steve Waters’ World Music is a slow-burning but eventually harrowing play on a difficult subject.
It filters a disturbing portrait of the realities of African genocide through the story of a now 40-something MEP, Geoff Fallon (played by Kevin R McNally), who spent his gap year as a student in Africa and therefore claims a special affinity for the place, while a local community leader called Jean Kiyabe (Ray Fearon) who provided him with hospitality there now turns up in exile in Brussels.
A fellow, younger MEP, however, early on admits: “To be honest I’m not up to speed on this one. I confess I pick up the papers on this issue and I don’t know what line to take. Too much back-story. Too many names with too many consonants….”
Even a Guardian-reading audience might feel the same. Waters thus has a formidable challenge in addressing his subject: to at once bring us up to speed and provide the kind of back-story that ultimately deals not so much with those infernal consonants but with some of the constants of that troubled continent – a colonial legacy of exploitation (that leaves us feeling guilty) and a present reality of warring factions and unimaginable horrors (that leaves us feeling impotent).
He does so, of course, by personalising the political. In cosy Covent Garden and the close-up confines of the Donmar Warehouse, this political canvas might at once feel rather remote yet too close for comfort to want to think about. But Waters’ play and Josie Rourke’s accomplished production of it (first seen in the wider expanse of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre last May) throws down a challenging gauntlet of immediacy that connects us to it quickly, opening in a flurry of quick-fire scenes.
World Music is set in present-day Brussels (where Fallon is entertaining his backpacker student son), and then in the fictional African state of Irundi in 1980, where his younger self (played in a confusing device - specified in the script - by the same attractive young actor Paul Ready who played the son) is being seduced by the mysteries of that continent. The piece powerfully evokes a sense of time and place, despite a typically almost bare stage by designer Christopher Oram but thanks greatly to the virtuoso lighting by Neil Austin.
While it’s a little unbalanced by playing out the first two of its three acts before the interval, the dramatic fireworks are saved for the last third, which is as gruelling as it is unsettling. Its power is fuelled by a tremendous performance from Kevin R McNally whose journey as Fallon has led us to this overwhelming conclusion.
- Mark Shenton