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Drama review: Our Lady of Kibeho – startling story of a heavenly ‘visitation’

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Katori Hall’s astonishing drama, based on the alleged visions of three schoolgirls, explores the power of faith and miracles as Rwanda’s genocide looms

The roots of religious ecstasy … Pepter Lunkuse, left, and Michelle Asante. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Katori Hall’s astonishing play, dealing with the apparent visitation of the Virgin Mary to a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls in 1981, has some distinguished forebears. Like Shaw’s Saint Joan, it explores the nature of miracles, and, like Miller’s The Crucible, it raises the spectre of mass hallucination. But it is very much Hall’s own work in that it roots religious ecstasy in a world of political tension between Tutsi and Hutu that was to lead to Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Hall’s previous work ranges from The Mountaintop, which saw Martin Luther King as a flawed martyr, to the book for the Tina Turner musical Tina, which was a celebration of the pop icon. Here she examines the true story of how three village girls in a Catholic college claimed to have received messages from the “Mother of the Word”. In the first half, the school’s tolerant Tutsi head and his domineering Hutu deputy clash over their responses to this seemingly divine eruption. But the play becomes even more gripping in the second half with the arrival of a Vatican emissary whose task is to test the validity of the girls’ visions, which climax in a prophecy of the bloodshed that was to visit their native land.

In an age dominated by secular drama, it is rare to find questions of faith so explicitly raised. What is good about Hall’s play is that it strikes a balance between respect for the girls’ integrity and scepticism about the religious hierarchy. It is possible, especially when the girls suddenly levitate, that they are surrendering to hypnosis. Yet Hall suggests they could be vessels for a divine message that sees Rwanda’s rivers running with blood. Their visions also expose both Rwanda’s ethnic divisions and the expediency of the Catholic establishment. The diocesan bishop, who initially wants the story suppressed, comes to see it as a tourist attraction and even the school’s priest covertly trains the girls in the liturgy so that they can pass the Vatican’s tests.

 Messages from the ‘Mother of the Word’ … from left, Rima Nsubuga, Michaela Blackburn, Pepter Lunkuse and Gabrielle Brooks. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Hall’s virtue is that she puts a complete world on stage, one that embraces a cloistered college, a faith-hungry village and tribal hatred. James Dacre’s production rises to the challenge with the aid of a community ensemble, a Jonathan Fensom set that shows the sun-kissed landscape beyond the hermetic school and an Orlando Gough score that blends a cappella singing with tingling accompaniments to the girls’ visions.

Characters are also sharply delineated. Gabrielle Brooks brings out the artless wonder of Alphonsine, the initial visionary, while Yasmin Mwanza evokes the scholarly intensity of her fellow student Anathalie and Pepter Lunkuse the manipulative nature of the more mature Marie-Claire. There’s a touch of Graham Greene about the waning faith of the school’s Father Tuyishime, which Ery Nzaramba nicely captures. Leo Wringer pins down the worldliness of the local bishop, and Michael Mears as the Vatican’s man shows how disdain for the idea of divine visions in remote Africa give way to shaken acceptance of the possibility.

Hall leaves it to us to make up our own minds about whether the Virgin Mary spoke to the girls of Kibeho. But this is a play that swims against the tide by asking us to acknowledge the miraculous while also exploring the historical context of the Rwandan violence that the west notoriously did nothing to prevent.

• At the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until 2 February.

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