‘Rwanda is where God goes on holiday’, a local cleric tells a visiting official from the Vatican. The saying rings true in more ways than one in ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’.
Katori Hall’s follow-up to ‘The Mountaintop’ is set in a Rwandan village whose divine scenery is unexpectedly matched by divine apparitions, which send three Catholic schoolgirls into trances that foresee unimaginable horrors.
James Dacre’s production is appropriately dreamlike. The stage rings with girls’ chants, overlapping like pealing bells, and is artfully supplemented by reverberating sound design by Claire Windsor. Outside the window of a bare schoolroom, a palm tree’s leaves wave in benediction.
It’s an intensely feminine environment, and school head Father Tuyishime is visibly out of his depth as he tries to work out the truth behind the girls’ visions. Ery Nzaramba’s sharp performance makes the Father a man who’s sagging under the weight of his role, and under the uncomfortable adoration of his female pupils. Alphonsine (Taz Munyar) baffles him; she’s a mediocre divinity student who’s been inexplicably granted a hotline to the Virgin Mary. Soon, Marie-Clare (Pepter Lunkuse) and Anathalie (Liyah Summers) are joining her in falling to their knees, eyes wide in beautifully controlled scenes of ecstasy.
On one level, ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ is a pacy excavation of a real historical moment, sitting in the tradition of other explorations of female hysteria like ‘The Crucible’. But what marks it out is the notes of foreshadowed pain that Hall loads it with; everything’s made unbearably poignant by the knowledge of the Rwandan genocide that followed ten years after this play’s setting. Hall intricately spells out the post-colonial and tribal tensions that fracture this small school. To be visited by the Virgin is to be marked out as ‘special’, a mixed blessing that means being brutally tested by a sceptical white man from the Vatican, as well as resented by your friends. This ‘special’ status is an echo of what it’s like to be a Tutsi minority in a Hutu majority nation; Alphonsine is stereotyped as a ‘lying Tutsi’, and envied for supposedly Tutsi features like her tall stature and pretty face. Standing out is dangerous.
Dacre’s production uses flickering lights and stage trickery to make Alphonsine, Marie-Clare and Anathalie’s visions an undeniable reality. I wonder if Hall’s play has a little more ambiguity built into it; you could definitely read their visions as a psychological response to the trauma of living in a society that’s already fraught with social divisions. Still, there’s something about the atmosphere here that makes you so ready to suspend disbelief and get swept up in an intense mountaintop world that’s unexpectedly close to heaven, and shadowed with fear of the other extreme.