‘Will you favour me with your eyes, your ears and your voice?” asks John Rwothomack, the writer and performer of this intense, atmospheric monologue as we enter the auditorium. It initially sounds whimsical and mannered as he invites us to play a child’s game while in character as a squeaky-voiced boy. But his questions become commands and take on chilling overtones as he begins his story about Okumu, a Ugandan boy abducted and forced to become a soldier and executioner.
We are told to repeat the words of the commander that is training Okumu and then instructed to chant the acronym for the quasi-religious guerrilla rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, established in the 1980s by Joseph Kony, who declared himself the spokesperson for God. It is as if we are not just watching Okumu’s story unfold in the round but also being recruited alongside him.
This lean, hourlong drama has a woefully predictable trajectory: Okumu is terrorised into becoming a terrorist himself. We see his desperate attempts to hold on to his humanity, even when it is being pummelled out of him.
Under the inspired direction of Mojisola Elufowoju, Far Gone incorporates a bold form of storytelling, using the oral tradition – and direct address to the audience – alongside movement and mime, often for minutes at a time without accompanying words.
As Rwothomack’s first play, the script is sometimes unsubtle but his performance, especially in the non-verbal moments, transports us. Bare-chested and barefoot in childlike long shorts, he plays every character, from gunmen to the cowering child, and has a striking physicality, coiling up to appear tiny and expanding to become the ruthless commander or henchman. Depictions of violence are simulated through shocking, sinewy mime and Rwothomack dextrously plays characters chasing or fighting each other. Some of these scenes become opaque but the drama continues to grip and carry a spirit of fear and menace.
William Monks’ lighting and Lee Affen’s creepy sound design (crickets, birdsong, gunfire) add to the tension while the giant mobile of rags overhead casts jagged shadows across Kevin Jenkins’s circular stage, whose ground has the hue of a parched Ugandan bush landscape.
No matter how bleak the outcome, Rwothomack proves himself a captivating performer with a powerful story to tell.
• At the Studio theatre, Sheffield, until 26 February.