London Theatre Review: Our Lady Of Kibeho
| By Jack Hudson
Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho lands at the Theatre Royal Stratford East – a production that delivers a hard-hitting true story to defy expectations.
In 1981 a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Alphonsine, attended Kibeho College in the small mountainous parish of Mubuga – the “land of the seven hills”. She and two of her friends were suddenly overcome with shuddering possessions and visitations from the Virgin Mary – an angelic apparition clothed in sunlight, heralded as the “Mother of the Word”, who delivered a message of goodness and warned of a terrible war that would someday spring from the hearts of men...
It might come as a surprise that this story actually carries the weight of historical fact. The nightmare that followed in Rwanda seemed to mirror the Virgin Mary’s warnings, when the waters ran red with blood and up to a million people were killed over the course of 100 days, murdered at the callous hands of the Hutu government. In fact, the violence even extended to Kibeho college itself – the site of the play’s drama – where most of the college students of that time were murdered.
In the beginning, there is no refuting that Kibeho is where God comes on holiday - slow, peaceful, sun-baked - although, as the emissary later reminds us, “[God] lives in Rome”. Then Our Lady of Kibeho descends into the chaos as the fearless leading girls launch themselves with trembling physicality into unsettling possessions. It’s hard not to feel jolted by the visceral impact of seeing the schoolgirls overwhelmed by imagined spirits and overcome with the fierce emotion evoked by visions of the Virgin Mary. The drama then unfolds with biblical proportions. Flashes of lightning crack against the shuttered windows. Imagined views of Rwanda stretch far away under golden skies. Then the simple college turns to holy ground and a hallowed lodestone drawing in local believers and non-believers in their droves.
In time an emissary from the Vatican visits Kibeho, on behalf of the Pope, and employs more practical methods to verify these heavenly visitations. In some of the play’s most discomforting scenes, the emissary uses needles to stab the schoolgirls mid-seizure. If there is no reaction to the pain the possessions are considered partly verifiable – a conviction of integrity that recalls the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, whose leaders have at times chanelled a total immersion in their faith to set themselves on fire and sit without flinching in the lotus position, redefining what is believed to be physically possible.
This idea of spiritual endurance creates an overarching beam above the performance as a whole. At one point it is stated that God puts nothing upon us “that we cannot bear” – a statement that seems to ring a foreboding note, considered alongside the genocide that followed thirteen years later. And this again is another invisible beam shadowing the play, hanging over the stage with invisible, skeletal fingers – half-clenched with the ethnic hatred that brought an apocalyptic nightmare to Rwanda and turned the humid holy ground into “hell on Earth”.
Our Lady of Kibeho is a story Katori Hall uncovered whilst speaking to survivors during a visit to Rwanda. It calls at times for a suspension of disbelief, namely whilst watching the divine movements that sweep through the schoolgirls. In The Mountaintop Katori Hall questioned the pristine edifice of Martin Luther King – reimagined as a flawed martyr. In Our Lady of Kibeho, Katori Hall fearlessly takes us on a journey into the depths of spirituality and political turmoil - devotion and division. She reminds us of one of the world’s darkest memories, a holocaust that grew from ethnic divides and spread nationwide division between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. More than that, Hall’s creation is a rumination on the power of faith. First rejected as witches and sophists, the schoolgirls tread a fine tightrope across a liminal space, asking the audience a very challenging question – what separates the fantasist from the visionary?
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