NOTE: The following review dates from May 2006 and this production's original run at the National Theatre.

On the brink of the 1994 genocidal massacres in Rwanda, Jack Exley, an American academic anxious to complete a book on grassroots activists around the world, arrives in Kigala to seek out his old friend Joseph Gasana, an Aids doctor working in a paediatric clinic.

The starting point of JT Rogers’ The Overwhelming in the NT Cottesloe – directed by Out of Joint artistic director Max Stafford-Clark – seems simple enough. But the quest is hampered and engulfed in the rumble of tribal internecine strife between the extreme Hutu governing powers and the Tutsi “insurgents”.

Joseph (Jude Akuwudike) has gone missing - just one more statistic in the shocking chorus of “Goodbye Tutsi, goodbye” – but addresses us in flashback in his old correspondence with Jack. Jack has brought along his second wife, a black journalist with aspirations to novel-writing, and his 17-year-old son from his first marriage. An American embassy official takes them to the heart of darkness.

It's 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. The stage action moves from car rides to embassy receptions, poolside meetings, market trips – where a young girl selling cabbages is branded a “filthy Tutsi whore” – and the church, whose statue of the Virgin Mary dominates Tim Shortall’s clever design (well lit by Johanna Town).

The acting is flawless. Matthew Marsh makes Jack an interesting liberal driven by a selfish impulse to secure his university tenure. His wife and son – Tanya Moodie and Andrew Garfield – express contrasting reactions to the culture shock, while the non-welcoming party led by Danny Sapani’s imposing government official and Lucian Msamati’s tremendous, thuggish politician turn from smiling indifference to full-blown nastiness.

Out of Joint watchers will relish the perfect sound effect to accompany a golf swing, the brilliant metaphorical use of cabbages and skulls, the astute brace of performances by a single actor, Nick Fletcher, as a French diplomat and South African aid worker. But the play, disturbing and informative, makes us feel more helpless than ever in witnessing man’s inhumanity to man. The programme quotes Primo Levi: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

- Michael Coveney