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Theatre review: Our Lady of Kibeho

11 October 2019

Peter Graystone sees a play about faith and fear, set in Rwanda

Manuel Harlan

Members of the cast in Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho, now at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Members of the cast in Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho, now at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

CONTINUING its run in east London, having received its première at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Our Lady of Kibeho featured on the list of the 100 best plays of the century compiled by The Guardian. It is remarkable.

In 1981, in Kibeho, southern Rwanda, three girls at a Roman Catholic college have an apparition of the Virgin Mary. They shake and gasp, but their faces are radiant. Mary is “Not white nor black; just beautiful.” The staff clash over whether this is a blessing or a blasphemy. Parents try to beat the visions out of their children, knowing that they face ruin if villagers decide that they are witches.

The bishop is at first sceptical, but is swayed by the realisation of what will happen to the local economy if Kibeho, like Fatima, becomes a destination for pilgrims. An emissary from the Vatican arrives to test the validity of the girls’ visions. And then, in a terrifying scene, the girls deliver a warning from Mary of Rwanda engulfed in hatred and bloodshed. All this is made more chilling by the knowledge that the story is true, and that in 1994 all that the girls prophesied was realised in a government-sponsored massacre of the Tutsi tribe by their neighbouring Hutus.

What makes Katori Hall’s play so compelling is that she builds an entire world on a small stage. Here is a cloistered college, with its tolerant head, Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramb), and domineering deputy, Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante, particularly fine as the envious longing behind her hard-heartedness seeps out). But within it are the suppressed rumblings of the tribal hatred that would destroy the nation, and the compromises between faith and worldliness which have undermined Christian integrity in subsequent years.

In James Dacre’s superb production, the integrity of the visions is ambiguous. Are we watching levitation or hallucination? Unusually for a play in this generation, the gates of faith are left wide open. He draws powerful performances — sometimes youthfully giddy; sometimes sublime — from the actors playing the three girls (Pepter Lunkuse, Liyah Summers, and Taz Munya). He wraps them round in Orlando Gough’s score, which sweetens the horror with a cappella singing, then tingles menacingly during the supernatural occurrences. And, amid the tension, he finds a place for both humour and wonder (a magic consultant is credited: John Bulleid).

Four decades later, we live in a society that is more secular but equally turbulent. The voices of young people are vital, but frequently sidelined. It is impossible to see this play without thinking of a young Swedish girl who has crossed the Atlantic to raise the spectre of a future in which the world is ablaze. She is not only disregarded, but mocked by adults who hold power. Why do we scorn the clarity of vision of the young?

Our Lady of Kibeho runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15, until 2 November. Tickets from www.stratfordeast.com or phone 020 8534 0310.

Read our interview with Michelle Asante

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