Our Lady of Kibeho
Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Theatre Royal Stratford East
Theatre Royal Stratford East
In Children of Killers, dramatist Katori Hall looked at the aftermath of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda; here she goes back to 1981 and an event that warned of that 1994 horror when three schoolgirls at a Catholic boarding school in the village of Kibeho claimed to have been given a message by the Virgin Mary.
There had been a history of tension between the Hutu and Tutsi populations of the country. The colonial powers, first Germany, then Belgium, supported Tutsi kings but the Hutu-led 1959 revolution which gained Rwanda’s independence saw many Tutsi massacred.
It seemed apparently peaceful by the 1980s, but even in this school there is an undercurrent of ethnic antagonism. Tutsi headmaster Father Tuyishime (a beautifully controlled performance from Ery Nzaramba) seems to have been appointed as a placating political gesture by a disdainful Hutu Bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer).
As other girls share her visions, first Liyah Summers’s Anathalie and then Pepter Lunkuse’s uppity Marie-Clare, Father Tuyishime seems to believe that the Virgin had really appeared to them, but his deputy Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante) refuses to take these visions as holy and sees them as devilish.
The Bishop isn’t interested in the truth: he sees a commercial advantage, the creation of a shrine that will draw pilgrims and tourists and boost the economy. From being a firm sceptic he changes his tactics, ordering Father Tuyishime to instruct the girls in the Litany to make their claims more credible.
The Vatican sends a specialist to investigate: a white priest, Father Flavia (Michael Mears), who thinks it incredible that the Madonna should reveal herself to Africans. He carries out the statutory tests, uncaring of the pain they inflict, like an old-time Inquisitor, though we see a more human side in his reaction to being in this backwater.
This range of responses to the idea of a miraculous visitation emerges naturally, reactions that seem to match confrontations already existing. Katori Hall doesn’t attempt to provide any scientific explanations but takes things at face value. So convincingly does James Dacre’s production present the girls' experience that its reality becomes disturbing, verging on Exorcist territory in its graphic presentation.
Orlando Gough’s score makes a huge contribution, an expression of the girls’ faith that creates the atmosphere of this Catholic College and builds dramatically, adding passion and reinforcing credence. It is beautifully sung by the company, with the voice of Mitchell Zhangazha as the disease-stricken son of syphilitic parents who becomes an enthusiastic believer, providing a rich balance against female voices.
Jonathan Fensom’s setting seems simple, a plain room outside which tropical foliage overflows into the auditorium, its back wall rising to reveal the girls’ dormitory, the night sky or a landscape that locals think so lovely they say that ”Rwanda is where God goes on holiday”. Charles Balfour’s lighting adds another element to the African atmosphere and the drama.
Our knowledge of what was to come in Rwanda, the enactment of what the Virgin gave warning, gives the play a tragic dimension but, even without that, it is a fascinating and moving presentation of something inexplicable and of the tense undercurrents of ethnic confrontation. This production skilfully weaves together its various elements to provide an experience of theatre that should not be missed.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton