You don’t notice how rarely you see some subjects on stage until you do see them. Our Lady of Kibeho absolutely shines in its depiction of young women – as individuals and as part of a group. Katori Hall’s intelligent and intoxicating 2014 play actually presages the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but in its delicate depiction of a community and church hierarchy’s response to three young women who appear to have visions of the Virgin Mary, it’s also an unwitting forebear of the #MeToo movement. The playwright’s real masterstroke, however, is that she doesn’t question the veracity of the miracle. Instead, it gently presents to us – a probably mainly secular audience – largely as fact that three teenage girls are getting messages for Rwanda’s president from a supernatural being. And it’s not even remotely weird.
Set in 1981 in a Catholic ladies college in the village of Kibeho, the “Trinty’s” visions culminate in a disturbing prophecy of nation drowned blood. But not before they levitate off their beds and pass a series of violent and invasive tests designed to root out hoaxers. Hall saves her scepticism for the institutions and individuals around the girls as she explores the swirling tensions, traumas, beliefs and prejudices that drive people to believe or disbelieve that a miracle is afoot.
Hall’s dialogue goes off like a firecracker: she moves deftly around her themes, peppering the play with laugh-out-loud lines delivered by sharply and sensitively drawn characters, but never lets thing become lecturing or judgemental. The girls interacting as group – the cattiness, the cruelty and the closeness – are beautifully drawn. But it is especially satisfying that the young female characters, in particular, the Trinity of Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie-Clare – played with care and charisma by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse – are finely honed as distinct individuals, as part of an exploration of burgeoning womanhood that is expansive, gentle and – for all its funniness – serious in its a portrayal.
Layer after layer of tension is arrestingly peeled back. Fierce and unsympathetic deputy, Sister Evangelique, favours the bullying eldest student, Marie-Clare, deploying her like a weapon against the other girls, because of their shared identity. Sensitive headteacher, Father Tuyishime, traumatised by his mother’s death and ambivalent about his faith, is uncomfortably tender with the first visionary, Alphonsine, based in theirs. All of which, consciously or subconsciously, drives their responses to the remarkable events, along with a hefty dose of the belief that teenage girls are by nature duplicitous, and that their burgeoning sexuality is problematic and must be policed.
The skills and sensitivities of Hall’s script are elevated further by tense, dramatic – but never overbearing – sound design from Claire Windsor and the intoxicating a capella singing courtesy of the wonderful ensemble and composer Orlando Gough. The latter works wonderfully to emphasise the girls’ shared rapture and the play’s strong sense of community and place.
What James Dacre’s production lacks in outright panache it makes up for in clarity, fluidity and faith in Hall’s crystal clear writing. Moments of movement and stillness are beautifully balanced on a pleasingly unfussy set that captures the spartan (by Western standards) school with its swathes of beige and muted green. Designer Jonathan Fenson smartly steers clear of trying tackling the beauty of Rwanda’s expansive landscape, trusting us to believe the characters’ assertions that it’s a place so beautiful God goes on holiday there with hints of vast sky.
Our Lady of Kibeho is a tender play about unbearable brutality. A quiet warning that it’s wise to believe women, even when doing so challenges your worldview.
Our Lady of Kibeho is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East till 2nd November. More info here.