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September 21, 2007

Richard Cussands's new play Charity Wars is too grim even for those who have a jaundiced view of international aid, argues Brendan Simms - Richard Cussands's Charity Wars at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington

Posted by Brendan Simms

Richard Cussands's Charity Wars
directed by Natascha Metherell
Stone Crabs Production
Pleasance Theatre, Islington, London
11th - 30th September 2007

Charity has always ranked high among the virtues. Yet can there ever be a truly selfless, charitable act? As the anthropologist Levi-Strauss pointed out, the ritual giving of gifts is very much part of the creation of hierarchy in primitive societies. Marcel Mauss tells us that those who give gifts always expect something in return, however intangible that good might be. There is thus, to use a familiar phrase, "no such thing as a free lunch".

As for individuals and societies, so for the international aid development agencies. This is the argument of Richard Cussands's provocative new play Charity Wars, which is now running in the Pleasance Theatre. His often vicious piece captures the self-importance, the angst of donor competition, the hubristic rush of blood to the head which invariably accompanies the doing of "good", and much else extremely well. The relevant government department is brilliantly named the "Ministry of Culture and Good". The minister himself is a superbly cynical and empty apparatchik, whose only concern is to ensure that the international aid effort does not rebound to the discredit of Her Majesty's Government, and indeed to himself.

The central character, Joannie, is a once-brilliant Marketing Director for the charity "Repair", who fears the loss of important donors to her bitter rivals at "Succour" [Sucker!?]. She is also increasingly paranoid about the presence of wreckers within her own organisation, especially the sinister Caspar.

All Joannie's attempts to regain the initiative fail disastrously. The first, a presentation of a diminutive and fizzling water carbonator, produces merely derision and disappointment. The second initiative, a well-publicised air drop of useless goods - including organic nibbles! - provokes a full-scale riot in which "Repair's" long-serving, and suffering, local plenipotentiary is lynched. Outraged villagers set up the "East African Self-Help Front" and expel all aid agencies, including the rival "Succour". Facing defeat in the face, and a full scale political crisis back in London, Joannie makes a desperate bid to turn back the tide. She takes over the region, smashes the "Self-Help Front" and erects what is effectively a military dictatorship. Only the determined intervention of the "Repair" leadership, and the Minister for "Culture and Good", forces her out at the end, when Joannie is ignominiously incarcerated in a box to be shipped back to Britain.

All this is persuasive enough in its own way. Cussands is surely right to lampoon the bureaucratisation of the aid agencies, epitomised by Joannie with her sanctimonious "rules for giving". His send-up of the hapless "helpers" is also all-too-credible: Joannie brutally remarks at one reception that the burbling volunteer's contribution "will not even pay for her drink". What the piece lacks is an equally corrosive view of the recipients. To be sure, the African villagers are hardly idealised, but there is no treatment of the real root of the problem: bad governance in African societies. No doubt Cussands would regard this stricture as another example of western condescension, but the simple truth is that the "East African Self-Help Front" would probably be no less grasping and brutal than any other African dictatorship. Ironically, in tearing it down Joannie was probably doing everybody a favour. After all, as one wag has put it, international aid is about taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.

Charity Wars is a rather crowded piece, with too many (often very good) jokes, which do not allow the audience time to absorb the satiric whole. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of a small setting with an enthusiastic but sometimes clumsy cast. On the one hand, the performance was very direct, almost "in your face", so that we were immediately attuned to changes of mood and even odour as the story unfolded. On the other hand, the rapid (almost frenetic) pace of the scene-changes disrupted the rhythm of the argument and characterisation. No doubt this was intended to draw the audience into the action - an effect heightened by the small size of the theatre - but the result was sometimes to prevent us from standing back to reflect. Afterwards, one was left entertained and stimulated, but also asking: "what was all that (really) about".

The play could also have done with a bit more humanity. Contrast for example the relentless cynicism of Charity Wars with Ian Curteis's The Bargain. It is no hagiography of the controversial Mother Teresa, and certainly not of Robert Maxwell, but the sympathetic approach throws the darker sides of both into higher relief [see my review, When Mother Teresa met Captain Bob: The Bargain - Ian Curteis]. Plausible, thought-provoking and hilarious as it is, Cussands's universe is too bleak. Unlike Curteis's notorious Maxwell, Joannie does not see the light, but is locked in a box instead. The raucous ending is not only (intentional) slapstick but also too grim, even for those who have a jaundiced view of international aid.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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