Time: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.
Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.
This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.
But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.
I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.
Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.
Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.
The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.
A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.
I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.