Out of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark directs the world premiere of JT Rogers’ The Overwhelming at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre (See News, 15 Feb 2006). The production, which opened on 17 May 2006 (previews from 9 May), marks the UK debut for American dramatist Rogers.

Set in Rwanda in early 1994, Jack Exley (played by Matthew Marsh) uproots his family from Illinois to research a book, and tragedy strikes. As well as Marsh, the cast includes Jude Akuwudike, William Armstrong, Babou Ceesay, Chipo Chung, Nick Fletcher, Andrew Garfield, Tanya Moodie, Lucian Msamati, Adura ONashile and Danny Sapani.

Critics were drawn into the days leading up to the Rwandan genocide in Stafford-Clark’s “powerful” production and agreed that while it has its faults, The Overwhelming makes important points about world affairs. The production continues in rep until September when it embarks on a five-week tour, visiting Oxford, Leeds, Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester, where it concludes on 7 October.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “It is hard to feel objective about the play because the second act and the conclusion are so tragic and so upsetting. And yet, here we are, in a comfortable theatre, as it were authenticating one of the most shameful episodes of our recent history and the inevitable upshot of the introduction of ethnic identity cards by the Belgians in the Congo in 1926… Some of the play feels bitty until Stafford-Clark’s trademark genius for imposing fluency and detail takes hold.” Coveney also commended the “flawless” acting and the “brilliant metaphorical use of cabbages and skulls”. He concluded: “But the play, disturbing and informative, makes us feel more helpless than ever in witnessing man’s inhumanity to man.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - Nightingale felt that Rogers’ play “sometimes reminds one of those Graham Greene thrillers” although “a bit wordy and cluttered.” However, Max Stafford-Clark “catches the complexity of a situation in which even an idealistic Aids doctor may have dark secrets to hide. And by the end, it’s evident that Rogers is writing as much about 2006 as about tribal madness in 1994.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “I welcome any play that raises our eyes from domestic issues. And JT Rogers' work, set on the eve of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, stirs our sleeping consciences… The play is an indictment of global powerlessness in the face of the Rwandan crisis and a reminder that it may be repeated in Darfur… What the play has to say is important; but Rogers' dramatic technique is spasmodically flawed. For an expert in international relations, his hero seems excessively naive.” However, “the technical shortcomings are camouflaged by the speed and clarity of Max Stafford-Clark's Cottesloe production. Scene melts into scene in Tim Shortall's functional set and there are good performances all round.” Billington decided: “I am willing to forgive the play's aesthetic flaws for the urgency of its humanitarian theme.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - De Jongh was impressed with the “deftly effective and powerfully acted production” which “achieves the emotional impact that TV news bulletins and newspapers rarely manage.” The play’s “characterising sense of speed, fluidity and anxiety, as hotel room gives way to hospital office or market place, is beautifully conveyed… The finale, with its emblematic coup de theatre, brings this war into close, ghastly focus. The Overwhelming gives political theatre serious allure.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell