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THE GENOCIDE in Rwanda is one of recent history’s more horrific events yet it has rarely been the focus of much theatre in Britain.
Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho goes some way to offset this. Set in 1981, before the genocide begins, the play shows a society at a point when the seeds of division and violence have already been sown.
It’s set in Kibeho College, where Alphonsine — a striking debut from Taz Munya — Anathalie (Liyah Summers) and Marie-Claire (the engaging Pepter Lunkuse) are visited by the Virgin Mary and given a series of messages, culminating in a shocking premonition of Rwanda’s violent future.
As the rest of the college struggles to come to terms with the veracity of the girls’ claims, Father Flavia (Michael Mears) arrives from Rome to assess the events and the young women.
James Dacre’s production and cast brilliantly capture the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of the school and the sense that playfulness might spill into something darker at any minute is palpable. All the characters walk a tightrope between wonder and fear, between being accepted or shunned.
Representing religious visions onstage is fraught with danger but Claire Windsor’s evocative soundscape and Charles Balfour’s hugely atmospheric lighting design support the committed performers brilliantly.
Whether or not you believe the religious elements of the play, Hall’s depiction of a society riven by racial divide between Tutsi and Hutu and which refuses to listen to warning signs, whatever shape they might take, is unpleasantly familiar.
While there are broad political elements to Hall’s work, it is also a human drama and at its heart is Ery Nzaramba’s subtle performance as Father Tuyishime, who believes and protects the three young women but recoils in horror at their final prediction.
He wonderfully captures Tuyishime’s exasperation at how these young women are treated by the institutions that should support them and his gentle affection for Alphonsine is moving.
Some secondary characters sit slightly oddly here — Emmanuel in particular — but this is a compelling and profoundly political piece of storytelling.
Runs until November 2, box office: stratfordeast.com
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