Our Lady of Kibeho at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Our Lady of Kibeho

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 31st October 2019

Old Billers, now set to enjoy retirement as he steps down from his job as chief critic at the Guardian, knows a thing or two about theatre. So, when he identified, with his colleagues, OLOK as one of the best original plays of the C21, it reinforced the need to see it. There are plenty of other crackers on the list. I would concur with the likes of The York Realist, Escaped Alone, King Charles III, The Ferryman, Enron, The Watsons, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Caroline, or Change, One Man Two Guvnors and the Lieutenant of Inishmore, some of Billers’ other choices, but would be tempted to add Oil, Hangmen, John, Sweat, Love and Information and A Number to the list.

Anyway I missed OLOK at the Royal and Derngate so was very pleased to see it pop up in Stratford and, correctly as it turned out, ventured that this would be something which would pique the SO’s interest. For OLOK is an extraordinary story based on “real” events. Kibeho is a small village in SW Rwanda, home to a Catholic convent secondary school where, in the early 1980s, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared to three of the students, Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango. The Virgin specifically warned in August 1982 of a Rwanda descending into hated and violence, seen as a premonition of the war and 1994 Genocide, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi were already escalating. The school itself was destroyed in 1995 with the girls involved, (there were other claimed visionaries), themselves fleeing or dying at the hands of the Hutu militia.

In 1988 the local bishop, Augustin Misago, who was subsequently accused and acquitted of involvement in the Genocide, approved devotion at the site and the Catholic Church eventually sanctified the visionaries. Kihebo is now a place of pilgrimage. Katori Hall’s play, which was first produced in New York in 2014, pretty much cleaves to the story, with this much dramatic material to work with why wouldn’t you, and works not just because it examines the horror of what happened in Rwanda in those dark years, but also the nature of faith and the workings of the Catholic Church. And it does this not with clunky exposition, exaggerated dialogue or blundering censure, but with compassion and through concentrating on these very human characters.

Against the backdrop of Jonathan Fensom’s straightforward but effective set, a room in the hermetic convent, paint faded on the mud and plaster walls, we meet the three girls at the centre of the visitation, played by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse, as well as their classmates, actors Aretha Ayeh, Michaela Blackburn, Perola Congo and Rima Nsubuga. The girls display the usual cliquey rivalries exacerbated by Hutu/Tutsi division. All of these young actors convinced, helped by voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder, though Taz Munya as Alphonsine, the naive newcomer and “first” of the visionaries, and Pepter Lunkase, as Marie-Claire, the bullying leader of the Hutu girls who initially mocks Alphonsine, before herself succumbing to the full on Marian experience. Movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell, as well as magic and aerial consultants, John Bulleid and Vicki Amedume when it comes to the end of act I coup de theatre, deserves immense credit for making the ecstatic visitations very real, even a little bit disturbing, though of course I wouldn’t actually know what it is to be called upon by VM.

The tolerant Father Tuyisheme, (a fine performance from Ery Nzaramba), a Tutsi whose wife has already been murdered, initially is the only one who believes the girls who fawn over him, but gradually the evidence of their own eyes persuades the domineering and envious Hutu Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the lofty bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) and, when he is sent from the Vatican to asses the evidence, the sceptical Father Flavia (Michael Mears). Though their reasons for back-pedalling are not always pure and holy as the hierarchy sees the potential financial benefits of having a pilgrimage site in the middle of Africa, and even the increasingly uncomfortable good Father Tuyisheme plays along with the Church’s testing conditions. The credibility of what the visionaries claimed to see only became clear in retrospect of course, recognised “officially” in 2001, and the rebuilt church in Kibeho now is a magnet for tens of thousands visitors from across the Catholic world. (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka now lives on the site: Marie Claire Mukangang was murdered there).

Now, if, like the Tourist, you think all this visitation and Virgin Mary cult stuff is all nonsense, don’t worry, it won’t stop you enjoying the play. I haven’t seen Katori Hall’s previous feted play, The Mountaintop, set the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination, but she entrusted its direction at the Theatre 503 where it first appeared in the UK, to James Dacre, now the AD at the Royal and Derngate, and she has done the same here. I can see why. There are, of course, obvious parallels with classic plays such as The Crucible and Saint John (and, if you will forgive the re-location, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined), but this is very much an original. The value of faith against such a harrowing backdrop is questioned, as are the motives for the acceptance of the miraculous, but always in a modest and equivocal way, which Mr Dacre is attuned to, as is Charles Balfour’s lighting, Claire Windsor’s sound and Orlando’s Gough’s composition.

A thought-provoking subject and production, full of fine detail, that never loses sight of plot or character. And by occupying a time, before, and a place, apart, from the war to come Ms Hall succeeds in amplifying her message. It is no surprise then that MB rated it so highly and that we concurred. Whilst I can’t pretend that Tina the Musical, for which Katori Hall wrote the book, is on my list of must sees, I confessed to being intrigued by the premise of the TV show she has created, P-Valley, (though, as usual, I will rely on LD and BD to explain how and where to access it), and will keep a weather eye out for any new or revived theatre work from her.

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