You’re welcomed into the darkened theatre to find a large, polished wooden conference table. At one end sit three smartly-dressed officials, armed with microphones and a slide projector. Two or three other people sit at the table: are they performers or your fellow audience members? Eventually there are twenty-nine of you; and everyone, actors and audience alike, has a front row seat. Then the lights dim, a slide comes up, and the story begins.
The last few years have seen a slew of “verbatim theatre” productions, in which real testimony — the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, the Hutton report on Iraq — is dramatised by actors. At its best it can be thrillingly authentic, at worst simplistic and hectoring. A Place at the Table, which investigates the 1990s conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, embraces the best of it, sidesteps the pitfalls and creates something thrillingly different and new. There are real life testimonies here, from participants, victims and journalists, but there is also exciting physical theatre, a constantly surprising staging and a sometimes very funny deconstruction of the show itself. The performers are steeped in information — it’s deeply researched, including first hand interviews — but they cheerfully acknowledge the complications of the story: even the official UN report, it turns out, was unable to make clear distinctions between Hutus, Tutsis and the other groups involved. Indeed, this is part of the point of the story: once you start trying to trace the roots of the conflict you quickly find yourself chasing leads back to the 1993 Burundi coup, then to independence in the 60s, to the Belgian occupation in 1916, to German East Africa in 1890 and as far back as the 1300s, when the Hutu people first settled in the region.
Along the way there’s also a brilliantly simple demonstration of just how to stir up ethnic hatred, an analysis of the connection between cell phones and colonialism and some terrific, understated acting that’s all the more effective for its rigorous lack of sentimentality. This is sometimes harrowing material, and the show allows it to speak for itself. The one thing that is certain is that conflict can’t be solved by looking backwards; the challenge is to figure out what forwards might look like.
A Place at the Table is an evolving piece of theatre that will no doubt evolve further. There are a couple of uncertain moments, and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the performance and its audience develops over time. But it’s a fantastically confident show, one that deserves a long life in different locations; and for all the darkness in the story, it leaves you inspired and exhilarated, both by the potential of theatre and the human capacity for hope.