Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 30: Stella Feehily’s Bang Bang Bang (2011)
Inspired by workshops and interviews with aid workers, journalists and doctors, Feehily’s play aims to expose the inner machinations of humanitarian charities working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The effects of the work upon the social lives of the central characters pulls much focus. Indeed we are led to believe that aid workers are habitual drifters and idealists. Sadhbh entered into aid work as a means of escaping her old life and childhood sweetheart in small-town Ireland, and she is still running now, from the drudgery of settling down with her boyfriend, Stephen, in Islington. Naïve Mathilde has notions of saving the world by day and partying by night, while young photographer, Vin, aspires to international acclaim.
The characters are well drawn, the variety of nationalities comes across in the language and individual quirks without becoming stereotypical, and there are even a few tongue-in-cheek jibes at the clichéd Irish ‘craic’ without sacrificing colloquial warmth and wit. However, I found myself wishing to see more of the people being helped – not in an exploitative way, as is hinted in Vin’s lack of perspective when photographing a traumatised child – for a play aiming to be insightful into serious issues and life in violent territories it seems to lack a local voice. One of the most intriguing scenes involves Sadhbh interviewing Mburame, a notorious warlord. The to and fro of their conversation reveals the complexities of impartial aid work and the charisma embodied by the man we are told imposes widespread brutality. This scene has the potential to be a pivotal moment of drama, a meeting with the omnipresent threat, yet despite the frequent references to Mburame throughout, because the scene is cut short, it feels muted and slightly anticlimactic.
Following an attack on the aid worker’s camp, journalist Ronan seeks a scoop for the New York Times. Here Feehily makes some scorching remarks upon the ignorant state of Western media and blasé attitudes towards violence and welfare in far-off countries. Sadhbh sums up this attitude when accosting Ronan; ‘I know your angle. I guess a raped humanitarian will get many more inches than a raped eight-year-old Congolese girl? Where were you when fifty-three women and girls were raped in Masisi? Or is that too much of a norm to appear in the New York Times?’. These criticisms are very welcome, workers like Sadhbh are well aware of the dangers they face, yet the number of Western victims is infinitesimal in comparison to the hardship endured by local victims. To make a tenuous comparison I indicate the panicked uproar and intense media attention afforded to terrorist attacks in Europe and the US, as well as the deaths of journalists and humanitarian workers held captive by IS, while the many, many victims in the middle east are relegated to the ‘in other news…’ bulletins, and refugees are shunned and dehumanised through sheer ignorance.
While Feehily makes assured points, in focussing in the majority on the personal lives of the aid workers, I feel she falls victim to the very attitude she criticises. The Congolese victims are mainly talked about rather than portrayed as actual people, and while young Amala points a home-made gun and screams to be heard and recognised - ‘I am Amala. I will tell all the stories’ – there remains a sense that these people have been sidelined. This is never more evident than in Vin’s photograph, entitled ‘The Gun, The Gun, The Gun’, winning the Ian Parry award, yet his subject, the small traumatised child, remains unnamed, anonymous, and unheard, the hurt and anguish experienced by the child merely prolonged and exploited by Vin in order to satiate the thirst for self-satisfying liberal empathy from a safe distance.
Despite its shortcomings, the ambivalences and contradictions in Bang Bang Bang make for an interesting read and Feehily succeeds in inviting us to question Western, liberal morals as the very subject at the core of the play presents dramatic, thematic and social dilemmas for audiences and readers to ponder. And this quandary is in no way easily fixed, as Ronan says, ‘You give me a story. I bring it to the public. You get focus on Congo. Your organisation gets more recognition. Mutual responsibility’. A stubborn knot that needs loosening, Feehily’s play leaves me feeling frustrated, guilty, and intrigued.