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Chris High review: J.T. Rogers new play at the Liverpool Empire Theatre

The Overwhelming
by J.T. Rogers

Matthew Marsh, William Armstrong, Tanya Moodie, Andrew Garfield,
Jude Akuwudike, Danny Sapani, Babou Ceesay, Chipo Chung,
Adura Onashile
Director: Max Stafford Clark
A National Theatre / Out of Joint Production
Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
Friday 29th September, 2006

The Overwhelming by J. T. Rogers: 2006 promotional image


Everyman Liverpool Playhouse official website

With The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers has made a stunning entry into British theatre, with this telling of ignorance set in Rwanda at the start of the country’s ethnic cleansing regime.

Seizing the opportunity to research a book, Jack Exley (Marsh) uproots his family from Illinois to Rwanda in early 1995. Alarmingly out of his depth, Jack begins a fervent search for his dear, missing friend, Joseph Gasana (Akuwidike), while Jack’s wife, Linda (Moodie) and teenage son, Geoffrey (Garfield), find trouble of their own. As Jack involves himself in local politics, without the help of the American ambassador (Armstrong) – who simply repeats that the Americans are guests in Rwanda – he discovers a pattern of brutality and beliefs that jeopardizes the lives of everyone around him.

This is powerful theatre, brilliantly acted and staged. The performances of Matthew Marsh as the increasingly dismayed Jack, is quite stunning at times and that of Andrew Garfield as the awakening son, Geoffrey, shows that here is a talent brimming with potential.

Though informative and a little laboured in its setting of the scene, the first act has all the overtones of a lecture as the naivety of the American family is spotlighted. The second act, however, puts that to one side and the story blossoms into something that pricks the conscience of the audience to such an extent it is nothing short of momentous.
The spelling out of the reality of the situation to Jack by an anonymous UN military chief (Msamati), is the play’s epiphany and is worth the entrance fee alone for the direct bluntness with which it is delivered.

When the official asks Jack if he speaks French, to which the answer is no, the UN officer rebukes him, saying: “If you will forgive me, that is very foolish. You are seeking answers in a country you do not know, without a language to understand it … Mister Exley, we are a small, dirty Band Aid on a large festering wound. What do you think we can do here?”

Sound familiar?

Rwanda is too small a country without enough economic or geographic importance for the “Big Boys” to concern themselves with. Furthermore history is only ever written – or not written – by “the winners”; a fact brilliantly illustrated here, as the conflicting reasons for the genocide are highlighted, one-by-one.

The blind ignorance of Linda, the confusion of Geoffrey and the overriding desire of Rwandans to be more like Americans in order to feel protected, are all preludes to disaster that are intricately woven throughout the telling of the story.

Powerful and thought provoking, The Overwhelming slowly evolves into a superb play and is a wake up call that great theatre should be.

For further information on the Rwandan crisis:

Everyman Liverpool Playhouse official website



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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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