Begging the question ‘How can I believe in God when he doesn’t believe in me?’, Director Adam Cook’s interpretation of Chris Urch’s award-winning play presents a fascinating dissection of family, religion, politics and love in a Ugandan landscape eerily similar to our own.
Set in the modern day, 'The Rolling Stone' (7 July) concerns the story of Dembe (Elijah Williams), an 18-year-old Ugandan student torn between the Christian duty imposed upon him by his older brother Joe (Mandela Mathia), the sacrifices made for him by his friend Wummie (Zufi Emerson), the conservative nature of Uganda embodied in his Mama (Nancy Denis), and his devotion to male Irish-Ugandan doctor Sam (Damon Manns). These issues intersect, overlap and mesh with one another to encase the audience in the emotional trauma experienced by LGTBQ+ Ugandans behind closed doors, offering a glimpse into the problems humanitarian aid cannot fix.
With such a heavy task, the actors perform admirably. Elijah handles the lead role well, his strong voice work and physicality compromising for a lack of facial expression to keep the audience focused. Mandela’s ability to engage with the audience in moments of interaction, such as scenes where he invites the crowd to sing and pray as part of his congregation, are incredible – he is the most successful in bringing out the British humour in Chris’ script. Damon, making his stage debut, provides the strongest performance out of the male leads; he balances the humanity his character needs Dembe’s lover with the uneasiness of a Westerner in Uganda impeccably, such that the audience can’t help liking him (even with his flaws).
Image © Clare Hawley
Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of the female cast until the late second half – Zufi and Henrietta Amevor (who plays the mute Naome) also make their theatre debuts but take a while to contribute to the play, their character development stalled so the Dembe-Sam love plot can advance. Nancy as Mama over-performs the reserved nature of her character to the point where her poignant dialogue is performed somewhat powerfully, but not as much as it could be; truly regrettable considering her immense talent for the part. Nonetheless, the entire cast (alongside dialect coach Amanda Stephens Lee) must be praised for their accents; never is a line performed in a native Australian accent, allowing the show to maintain its professionalism and believability.
Where the performance awkwardly flounders are the sound elements and non-crucial scenes. Sound Designers Nate Edmondson and Ryan Devlin primarily use sound in cheesy attempts to create soundscapes with barely audible animal noises or to heighten the power of Elijah’s or Mandela’s long monologues with ominous orchestral music. Yet, in doing so the power of the dialogue is lost. Moments that demand stillness, pause and silence, such as Mandela’s description of how homosexuals breach the word of God, are replaced with these unnecessary production elements, losing a sense of realism the play desperately needs.
Image © Clare Hawley
Further, scenes that do not provide crucial character arcs, such as Dembe’s duologue with Naome about his already-established homosexuality or Sam’s first meeting with Wummie, are mired with pacing and timing issues – making for tumultuous theatre that bores at points, excites at others, but never balances the two, an unfortunate side effect of great moments unsupported by equally great consistency.
Ultimately, Adam Cook’s at-times troubled portrayal of modern love has much to contribute to Australian perceptions of the issues it exposes. As the play’s progressive characters must struggle to survive in a conservative world, so must we, and that is where the power of its message lies. For many of the cast, it is their first professional time on stage. For the audience, it is also our first time to see Uganda in ways we never could before.