Agathe – The Playground Theatre, London

Reviewer: Adam Stevenson

Writer: Angela J Davis

Director: Mukal Ahmed

Agathe tells the story of Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a Rwandan academic and politician who became the Rwandan President for fourteen hours at the beginning of the genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994.

For a play about a very sombre and serious subject, Davis’s script contains many funny lines. While the UN peacekeeping force reacts with horror and consternation at the escalating violence, the African characters, one a Senegalese military observer, and the other Rwandans, often react with a wry and comic fatalism. When characters react to the increased availability of weapons, Agathe’s son describes hand grenades as ‘cheaper than lemons’ and the military observer talks about the 50,000 machetes imported in February, adding, “And that’s a short month”.

Agathe herself shrugs off the spiked club thrown through her window and says she’ll add it to her collection, she deplores the grammar in the death threats she’s sent and she describes bruises given to her as “political dialogue in my country.” She’s wry, witty and a little stand-offish. She’s aware that her position as Prime Minister is due to the difficulty in finding people who are willing to work together in a mixed government and is doubly aware how being a woman leads to her being belittled and mistrusted.

Yet, following the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana in a plane crash, she is thrust into the position of President without any support. Were this fiction, she would have been able to make a broadcast and calm the situation down, it being reality, she’s unable to get to the radio centre, hiding from her own military who have come to kill her. Despite being a powerless President, she shows dignity and bravery, helped by the frequently smart script and the fantastic performance of Natasha Bain.

Rio Attoh-Wood brings a lot of charm and charisma as Mbaye Diagne, the Senegalese observer who briefs the UN on the rise of the Hutu militias and uses his wits, smooth-talking and bribes to smuggle people to safety. He declares his best weapons are flavoured vodka, Whitney Houston CDs and Kit-Kats, which are “universally recognised as crunchy and delicious.” He’s also based on a real person and the UN have a medal in his name.

Matthew Faucher plays Agathe’s son, Lucas, who unfortunately gets little to do but complain about looking after his younger siblings but is far more effective as a Hutu radio announcer, spitting rhyming couplets about squashing the cockroaches wherever they are found.

Jordon Kemp and Maria Austen have the hardest job as representatives of the UN peacekeeping force. This is partly because they are hampered by having to do Canadian accents, but also because the UN is portrayed as an ineffective force who don’t understand the situation they are in or have any power to do anything about it.

What Agathe does most efficiently is ratchet up the tension until the violence spills out. One element that is particularly stressed is that the whole sequence of events is very carefully planned. The Hutu militias have detailed kill lists of every Tutsi and Tutsi sympathiser down to their children and staff. Attacks on UN forces are designed specifically to make them evacuate. The crash site of the President’s plane is sealed off to hide who downed it. As one character points out, it isn’t a case of ancient tribal warfare, it’s a highly planned, 20th-century genocide.

While the staging could be a little clearer (there are a few actors hovering around a little) and the scene transitions sharper, Agathe is a tense and effective reminder of how order can slide into chaos and why we should stand against inhumanity, even as it overwhelms us.

Runs until 4 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

A call to be brave and humane

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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