Normally, the whole watch the play- review the play dynamic is a simple enough one to carry out. With a production such as ‘We Are Proud to Present…’ at Shepherd’s Bush Theatre, or, to give it its full title, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915, this relationship becomes somewhat more complex. And that’s putting it lightly.
Set in the present day, the play introduces us to a group of young actors, half of whom are black, half of whom are white, as they attempt to present the story of the race motivated genocide of the Namibian Herero tribe by German invaders – the first genocide, we are told, of the 20th Century. A ‘rehearsal Holocaust’. However, as the company begin to bicker amongst themselves, over issues both racial and artistic, the story becomes increasingly difficult to tell. What perspective should it be told from? What evidence do they need? Can a white woman play an African tribeswoman? Can a black actor play a German soldier? Can anybody, white or black, really understand what life was like for the Herero? The piece descends progressively further into a post-modernist anarchy, as its 90 minute duration hurtles on, with art imitating life, and issues of identity, race and ownership culminating in an unsettling, challenging theatrical climax, the content of which I won’t reveal here, particularly as I’ve forgotten to provide any spoiler warnings.
For some, this production would doubtless be terrifying. The frequency with which the fourth wall completely disappears is, frankly, rather alarming. As a result, there is no real sense of security for the audience, with art and life, actor and character blending in and out of each other throughout. Unsettling as this no doubt is, and disaster though it could be in the wrong hands, in reality it’s little less than a triumph. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s script is poignant, questioning and, somewhat surprisingly, very funny – but ultimately, it’s clever. The initial chaos as the company decide exactly how they’re going to present the ‘lecture that’s only sort of like a lecture and then…kind of like an overview before the lecture, which is before the presentation’, in its friendly colloquial style relaxes you, and draws you in. It’s your leg up into the world of the play, or rather, the world of the rehearsal room, without which the whole production wouldn’t be half as effective or, come to think of it, as enjoyable.
The cast each capably carry the complicated narrative arcs of at least two characters each, the actor and the role they’re tasked with portraying. Gbolahan Obisesan’s excellent direction keeps it relevant, and accessible, with appropriate tweaks where necessary to the original more Americanised script. However, just as we begin to relax, the actors descend into chaos once again, each interrupting the improvised style action at crucial intervals, breaking character to ask questions about the story, why they’re telling it, and how they’re telling it. But whose story is it anyway? Whose decision is it to make? A superb set design by Lisa Marie Hall, the physical structure of which is taken apart as the action disintegrates, as well as innovative use of a handheld camera only adds to the sense of chaos and, ultimately, discomfort. Throughout, however, we never lose the sense that this is entirely the point.
It is never messy, never so out of control that we lose faith, leaving us free to ponder the difficult questions it raises of us.
It is rare to find a production which forces you to really think quite like this one does. For some, admittedly, it could be a tricky production to really appreciate, with the ending in particular leaving you in need of a large brandy. Incidentally, nigh on impossible to end as it no doubt was, for me, it did leave you feeling a little abandoned as an audience. Again though I’m confident that was entirely intentional, the inclusion of even a curtain call would (hopefully) have alleviated the need to turn to a stiff drink to recompose myself without losing any of the sense of shell-shock.
That said, this really is an inspiring night at the theatre, as entertaining as it is thought provoking, and often as comic as it is tragic. It also has one of the best hashtags going, with #WeAreProud emblazoned on chalk boards around the venue. Choosing to go, at least, is a no-brainer, although do be prepared to use your noggin once you’re there.
We Are Proud To Present... is running until 12 April at Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush.
Suitable for Ages 14+.