Monday 21 January 2019

Our Lady of Kibeho

Royal & Derngate
19th January, 2019, matinee

“The roar in the valley has become rather loud”

 It’s 1981 in the small mountain town of Kibeho, Rwanda, and three Catholic schoolgirls claim to receive frequent visitations from the Virgin Mary, sparking consequences on a local and global scale. Inspired upon hearing an account of this true-life story during a trip to Rwanda, Katori Hall teams up once again with director James Dacre to present the extraordinary Our Lady of Kibeho, a study on belief that is at once universal and deeply personal, while also scrutinising the communal seeds of warfare.

Dacre’s production opens up the world of Kibeho with great detail; it’s a world which is new to us on two levels. Firstly, we see a modest school building: its white a blue walls flaking, a playground thick with red clay, their water source a single hand-pump, electricity only evident in flickering ceiling lights. Radio Rwanda seems to be the only connection with the outside world. Secondly, Hall and Dacre show us a world devout with belief which to a 21st century, young, British audience may seem odd or anachronous. But the nature, extent and purpose of this belief is contested throughout. As the girls’ prophecies draw crowds of locals, media coverage and, eventually, interest from the Vatican, what at first seemed a blessing evolves into a portent of chilling historical magnitude.

Belief relies on inner strength; something doesn’t have to be seen to be believed. But in today’s society of stats and (mis)information, we insist on explanation and rationalisation. Even in The Simpsons, modern day miracles are put down to publicity stunts or coincidences. It takes some effort for us to actually suspend everything else we think we know to believe in something new. Therefore, the accusations of trickery and witchcraft aimed at the girls are vocalised with a conviction that is unsympathetic. This, alongside the pack-mentality displayed by the young women and the meditations on community is more than a little reminiscent of Miller’s The Crucible. However, the linear structure of Hall’s play exercises our empathetic capabilities as we experience the same doubts and discoveries as the characters, keeping the story grounded and thus allowing us to believe in the unbelievable.

Hall’s engrossing text grounds the unearthly events within the recognisable ‘tit-for-tat’ gamut of the classroom, encouraging a relatability with the characters that aids the suspension of our disbelief. The kind-hearted but naïve Headmaster, Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), clashes with the devoutly cynical Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), while the girls squabble and name-call with hormonal fervour. Yet these adolescent quarrels are symbolic of a more sinister social divide that becomes embroiled in the spiritual debate. Alphonsine (Gabrielle Brooks) is somewhat of a loner, shunned by her classmates for her Tutsi heritage, yet when her visions of Our Lady spread to others it seems to pacify the Rwandan social rift through spiritual unity.

As with her depiction of Martin Luther King in the Olivier Award-winning The Mountaintop, Hall’s play is layered and ambivalent; her characters are drawn as flawed human beings and what is deemed sacred becomes weighted by consequence. Far from idyllic prophets, Alphonsine cannot recite scripture, Anathalie (Yasmin Mwanza) is a downtrodden pawn, and Marie-Clare (Pepter Lunkuse) is bullish and proud. Sister Evangelique’s cynicism is revealed to stem from jealousy mingled with deep-rooted classism, while Bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) craves confirmation of the visitations by the Vatican for more self-serving reasons, and is even prepared to cheat in order to gain holy approval. In portraying faith in varying shades of grey and positing it as a subjective force Hall asks us to question our own beliefs, whether they be religious, political, social, conscious or unconscious.

Jonathan Fensom’s naturalistic set further grounds us in a believable reality – the red clay of the schoolyard is littered with discarded egg shells peeled by the bored schoolgirls; plants and flashes of azure sky can be glimpsed from the classroom windows – while during outdoor scenes Duncan McLean’s video captures the quasi-ethereal nature of the Kibeho sky. We hear that Rwanda is where God goes on holiday. Here the seven hills of Kibeho cast a momentous black silhouette against the colourful utopian skies. So effective is this use of the heavens that McLean’s subsequent video design during the prophetic denouement is a stark, nightmarish reminder of the brutalities that await the country.

Peppered amongst the stellar cast, Dacre makes excellent use of a local community company to portray the townspeople of Kibeho. The town feels populated by real friends and families and is an ideal advocate for local involvement in regional theatre. Our Lady of Kibeho is a transfixing meditation on the nature of belief and the power it can hold over a community.

Our Lady of Kibeho plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 2nd February 2019.
Pepter Lunkuse and Michelle Asante in Our Lady of Kibeho. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 4 January 2019


National Theatre

22nd December, 2018, matinee

‘The wall keeps out the enemy,
And we build the wall to keep us free’

As a child my dad would often read to me from an illustrated book of Greek Myths (retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams). I can still picture the often gruesome (to a six year old) illustrations of writhing snakes and gored bodies, yet these stories were amongst the most enchanting I encountered – my favourites were the stories of Icarus, Perseus and Medusa, and Theseus and the Minotaur. Tales of warring Gods, fantastical creatures, brave mortals and the contrasts of poverty and sumptuousness make for rich imaginings, but it’s the allegorical nature of these age-old myths that endure the tellings and retellings.

This theme resonates throughout Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a modern take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. From the original concept album, to concerts, to this theatrical version, Mitchell’s piece is an excellent example of folk oral traditions, exemplifying the evolution of abiding stories and the reshaping of them to fit the times in which we live. I came to director Rachel Chavkin’s production of Hadestown with fresh eyes, but audience members around us were evidently fans of Mitchell’s work and ardently discussed the changes brought in this version during the interval. As with McPherson and Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, Mitchell and Chavkin celebrate the universality of folk music, which seems a natural fit with the enduring and adaptable character of the Greek Myths.

Onto the musical itself. In brief, Hadestown presents the story of the unearthly talented musician, Orpheus (Reeve Carney), who falls in love with the poverty-stricken Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Meanwhile, Gods and lovers of the underworld, Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Amber Grey), are having the mother of all fights, Hades resentful of Persephone’s summertime jaunts in the world of the living. A cold and harsh wintertime ensues. Feeling neglected due to Orpheus’ obsessive search for the perfect song to bring springtime back, Eurydice is lured into the subterranean industrial sweat-shop of Hadestown by the devilish God’s promise of ‘freedom’ and wellbeing. On hearing that his love has unwittingly sold her soul for a life of endless labour, Orpheus descends into the netherworld on a rescue mission.

Set between a New Orleans-style jazz club and the fiery pits of Hadestown, Mitchell has (to forge another theatrical comparison) done for the Greek Myths what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did for the Bible with their rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; combining modernity and lore to make that stuffy literature once studied at school seem relevant and cool again. Mitchell treats us to lyrical odes (‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Epic’), anthemic torch songs (Wait For Me) and bombastic jazz funk (‘Way Down Hadestown’, ‘Road To Hell’, ‘Our Lady of the Underground’); musical indulgences that are a pleasure to listen to both in and out of the theatre. But nowhere is theme and format so pertinently unified than in Hades’ work anthem ‘Why We Build The Wall’. Utilising the question/answer refrain of many a folk song, Mitchell shines a light on dubious philosophical and moral diktats. The repetition and simple melody in the song creates a familiarity synonymous with folk while echoing the beating political heart of singers such as Bob Dylan (there are definite tones of ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to name a couple). Comparisons with the isolated ‘freedom’ won by denying ‘outsiders’, an ethos championed by Donald Trump in the US and Brexiteers here, is undeniable. The fact that Mitchell’s folk song feels ingrained within our memories even when hearing it for the first time is a powerful statement that resonates with the moral socio-political allegories found in fables, myths and fairytales. Yes, it’s ambitious and Mitchell packs a lot into what is essentially a tale of star-crossed lovers, but each element is thrilling in its own right and together they create a lavish feast of a show in Chavkin’s hands.

Reflecting the laid-back jazz-club tone of the piece, Rachel Hauck’s set is an atmospheric concoction of spindly spiral staircases and balconies, reminiscent of the streets of New Orleans. The visible band become part of a living and breathing set, each adding character to the scant backdrop. Upon this stage we are greeted with suave showmanship by André De Shields’ narrator (and messenger to the Gods), Hermes. He introduces us to the musicians in a concert-like call out, a nice touch which adds flare to the already stylish proceedings. The phlegmatic feel of the first act gives way to the mechanical furnace of Hadestown in the second act. Hauck’s set rotates and sinks, illuminated by Bradley King’s bruising lighting, emitting a sense of the cavernous, sweaty pit into which Eurydice descends. Details such as these prevent Chavkin’s production from feeling like a semi-staged concert – we are engulfed by Hades’ world and the cast’s impassioned performances ensure we are deeply invested in the fates of the heroes. Despite knowing how the original myth ends, I was on tenterhooks, hoping for an alternate conclusion.

Mitchell has instigated something special, and I hope, and expect, Hadestown to evolve further throughout the years, as each new version creates its own musical and mythological traditions. ‘If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’ – The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis expressed the sentiment perfectly, and this quote sprang to mind when, post-curtain call, Persephone implores the audience to raise a cup and ‘spill a drop for Orpheus’. The song lives on, carried by those that hear it.

Hadestown plays at the National Theatre until 26th January, 2019. The production transfers to the Walter Kerr theatre, New York, from 17th April 2019.

The company of Hadestown.
Credit: Helen Maybanks