Striking, spiritual and atmospheric: our verdict on Our Lady of Kibeho on Northampton stage

Rima Nsubuga as Vestine, Gabrielle Brooks as Alphonsine, Yasmin Mwanza as Anathalie and Michaela Blackburn as Evas. Picture: Manuel Harlan
Rima Nsubuga as Vestine, Gabrielle Brooks as Alphonsine, Yasmin Mwanza as Anathalie and Michaela Blackburn as Evas. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Anna Brosnan reviews Our Lady of Kibeho at the Royal & Derngate

There are cultural narratives for every era in history and, perhaps without realising it, the modern voice dominating ideas we hear in TV, media and even theatre is rather secular.

Pepter Lunkuse as Marie-Clare and Michelle Asante as Sister Evangelique. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Pepter Lunkuse as Marie-Clare and Michelle Asante as Sister Evangelique. Picture: Manuel Harlan

It is not until we see something quite different, striking and spiritual, coming out of the blue, that we realise how common and accepted that secular voice has become.

This was my first impression as I watched Our Lady of Kibeho, the latest play to be directed by James Dacre at Northampton's Royal & Derngate.

The play describes the real life story of three girls, growing up in Rwanda during the 1980s, who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. Eventually these visions escalate into very clear warnings about the violence which would soon threaten to turn their homeland into hell on earth.

Refreshingly, the play allows the audience the freedom to think and watch and wonder whether the girls were telling the truth after all.

Michelle Asante as Sister Evangelique (standing), Gabrielle Brooks as Alphonsine, Yasmin Mwanza as Anathalie. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Michelle Asante as Sister Evangelique (standing), Gabrielle Brooks as Alphonsine, Yasmin Mwanza as Anathalie. Picture: Manuel Harlan

That is not to say there are no hints of religious criticism within the text. The tale raises questions about what it really means to be devout and good, exploring fallibility and weakness in the play's portrayal of some of the senior religious figures - notably Sister Evangelique and Father Tuyishime who run the school, as well as Father Flavia who visits from the Vatican.

Instead, in the true essence of Christianity, the audience is guided to listen to the 'truth' through the words of the young, innocent and unexpected.

There is something very special about Katori Hall's play in its quiet exploration of a religious experience, particularly as it is set directly prior to the genocide of thousands upon thousands of Tutsis, which could have so easily forced this drama to take a very different direction.

Hutu-Tutsi tensions play a part in the story, but the starring role is the spirit of the young girls at Kibeho College and the miraculous story they eventually convince others to believe.

Ery Nzaramba as Father Tuyishime and Leo Wringer as Bishop Gahamanyi. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Ery Nzaramba as Father Tuyishime and Leo Wringer as Bishop Gahamanyi. Picture: Manuel Harlan

The staging of the play is as striking and atmospheric as the story. At times the action is confined to a small stone walled room at the school and at other moments the depth of vision increases, allowing audiences to enjoy starry backdrops and rambling landscapes. It almost felt like a symbol of the beautiful visions and other worlds the schoolgirls were allowed to see in their heavenly encounters with the Mother of God.

The roles of the visionaries must have been extremely tough to play as each girl had to face the audience while portraying their individual reactions to visions of Mary. Yet the acting by these three, Gabrielle Brooks as Alphonsine, Yasmin Mwanza as Anathalie and Pepter Lunkuse as Marie-Clare, remained emotional and convincing throughout.

Ery Nzaramba gave a charismatic and believable performance as Father Tuyishime, while Michelle Asante was also strong in her portrayal of Sister Evangelique.

A play about faith at a time of violence, the team behind Our Lady of Kibeho have succeeded in taking an unusual theme and using it to create a really thought-provoking piece of drama.

* Our Lady of Kibeho will run at Royal & Derngate until February 2. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk to book.