Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton – until 2 February 2019
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 and 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