Writer and director Tommy Lexen spent three years working on a theatre show with the aim of addressing the issue of child soldiers being enlisted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The use of children as soldiers is one of the many ugly truths that plague our world and one which has not, in my opinion, received as much exposure as it should have. There was a rather brief hubbub about the issue last year, with the Invisible Children's Kony 2012 viral video — though you could be forgiven for forgetting it, as much of the world seems to have done.

Like Enemies of the State offers a fresh perspective. Instead of treating these children as issues, it deals with them as people. In an attempt to understand their side of the story, the work comprises three narratives given by ex-soldiers conscripted into military roles, both willingly and unwillingly. This unique (or at least, not well documented) outlook is effective, as it reveals a side that most would simply not think of. I was surprised to learn that many child soldiers volunteer for the role. The production shows the extent to which such decisions are underpinned by social and economic issues.

That said, the cruelty is not downplayed. We hear stories of individuals who were captured and forced into service, told from the child's perspective. These accounts are more personal, and consequently more upsetting than anything a newsreader might tell you, and the shock escalates as the audience is subjected to watching brutal acts of cruelty played out on the stage.

The cast is faultless. They handle the subject matter excellently, giving a touchingly realistic portrayal of these individuals. But there are also moments, as with Luiana Bonfim's character Damien, when a chilling sense of cold indifference comes across — a poignant reminder of some of the less sympathetic consequences of emotional damage. Credit too must also be given to Mauricio Brandes, playing Pierre, a young boy captured and forced into military service. The skill and determination of the cast is at its most apparent during the shocking torture scenes, which are difficult to watch. These bold scenes take a huge amount of guts, and pay off excellently. 

In contract, Duane Palmer's three roles feel less fleshed out — a problem more to do with the script than with Palmer's performance, which is as charismatic as it could be given some unfortunate stereotyping. A predictably socially righteous journalist lets the tone down slightly, as does an African military general. These characters come across more as plot vehicles than anything else — a shame, given the strongly three-dimensional child characters. 

With three different narratives all interwoven, there are times when clarity suffers. However, after a confusing first fifteen minutes, characters and plot begin to fall into place, and Like Enemies of the State ended up being one of the most powerful, thought-provoking and brutal pieces I have ever seen. As a lesson in the awful practices behind this political issue, it is a real success. As a piece of theatre it is still great, even if there are times when the importance of the issue at hand detracts somewhat from the clarity and polish of the production.

Like Enemies of the State, at New Diorama Theatre

Like Enemies of the State is an informative, thought-provoking and shocking exploration of the lives of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the New Diorama Theatre.

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