You don't expect much from the Almeida Theatre at first sight. Its doors onto Upper St in Islington are shabby and unappealing. Directions pinned to the door send you an age further up the street. Eventually the real theatre entrance is revealed, all glass and concrete in smooth modern blocks of grey, with a stylish bar-restaurant.
Entering the theatre ten minutes before the start of the play, you're instantly in the Congo – a soundtrack plays the chirping of crickets and a gentle rainfall, the set is a corrugated iron shed on the stage of a muddy clearing, which runs to the front row's feet. Vines and lianas drape from the ceiling; trees rise up the side of the stage.
Great theatre should knock you out of your small world view and transport you somewhere far more difficult. But this play goes further. At the end of 'Ruined', you want the ground to open and swallow you up.
It's about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the breakdown in the rule of law, the anarchy of young men with guns and the horrific consequences of the crimes they commit. It's set in an anonymous village near Kisangani, in Eastern Congo, near the lucrative (for a few) mining areas.
It's about the enormous, grotesque tragedy of the Congo played on an intense localised context. We never leave this rotating set of the corrugated shed, the (whore)house of 'Mama Nadi' – we just see the bar, the girls' room, and an outside view. And that's how it gets you. It reduces a suffering on such an unthinkably awful, incomprehensibly large scale down to a few people in front of our eyes. Perhaps its a shame that we need that. Or perhaps just human.
The first half is slow to start. There's a clever first scene in which the salesman brings goods to Mama, then talks about the 'other things in the truck' and the horrible truth is revealed: it's two girls, brought to Mama to become prostitutes. Except that one isn't. One cannot do that work, since she is 'ruined': taken with a bayonet somewhere in the bush by armed militia.
The full extent of this isn't fully grasped in the early stages; the play largely runs through sitcom-style jokes, perhaps to ease us in gently, and there's impressive live music – the girl who is 'ruined' has to earn money this way. But gradually, as the scenes from whorehouse continue, we see the nights at Mama's and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
But its after the interval that the play explodes into life. Suddenly it's more real, as the war draws closer and closer to what Mama would call her 'haven' from it all, and the women's stories are told. Though Mama tries to defend her hard-nosed business attitude to running the house ('While two birds fight over a kernel, a third bird swoops down and carries it off…who do you think the third bird is?') she slowly reveals more of her character, every moment becoming more absorbing. At the time a final secret is a revealed, the audience seem to have stopped breathing.
It is an appalling play; nauseating, devastating, but brilliant. I haven't stopped thinking about it. The lead actress who plays Mama, Jenny Jules, gives an encapsulating performance. She barely smiles as she takes the applause at the end of the play, her eyes wet with tears. I'm not quite sure if we should be applauding. This must be exhausting for the cast.
And then everybody leaves. They pile into the bar or outside for a cigarette; and go about their wealthy, secure lives.