Our Lady of Kibeho at Theatre Royal Stratford East
In Our Lady of Kibeho, atmosphere is everything. Katori Hall’s 2014 play, based on the true story of three Rwandan schoolgirls who claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981, returns this month to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. 15 years before the Rwandan genocide, the girls relayed a message from the Virgin – that Rwanda would soon become hell on earth. And our knowledge of the prophecy’s fulfilment pervades the whole production with an atmosphere of expectation, leading to an electrifying and profound depiction of religious experience – supported by music, set and a stunning ensemble cast.
Taz Munya shines as Alphonsine Mumureke, the teenager at Kibeho College who receives the first visions. Almost buckling under the weight of the charge she has been given, she yet retains a beatific calm under the taunts, pokings and proddings inflicted by the other girls, teachers, and even an emissary from the Pope. Other standout performances include Michelle Asante as cynical deputy headmistress Sister Evangelique and Ery Nzaramba as tortured headmaster Father Tuyishime – figures caught between their concern for the school’s future and their suspicion that the girls might possibly be telling the truth.
Representing spiritual ecstasy onstage is not an easy task, and at times the three girls’ jerking bodies become almost grotesquely amusing rather than thrilling. But Charles Balfour’s lighting transitions effectively from day to night, ordinary life to visionary moment, so that the flights of revelation are compelling to even the most hardened non-believer. One cannot but think of Miller’s The Crucible, with its calculating teen drama queens. But here the line between reality and lies is far more blurred. The audience is left to decide for itself whether the visions are real; the girls’ united front is never broken.
Jonathan Fensom’s set unobtrusively suggests a 1980s Rwandan school – a Spartan arena in which the drama of the plot is allowed to take centre stage. Claire Windsor’s sound design pits harmonious choral music against discordant soundscape to give the impression of a school, a country, a world struggling to retain the semblance of peace in the face of impending catastrophe. The accepted enmity between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes – shown through the girls’ casual slurs and professions of superiority – is elevated in retrospect to something direly chilling and portentous. We read back into 1981 signs of the horrific massacre of the Tutsi that would take place in 1994; like the protagonists of Our Lady of Kibeho, the audience becomes concerned with the boundary between falsehood and belief, superstition and truth. The difference is simply where that concern is directed.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Our Lady of Kibeho is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 25th September until 2nd November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.