In 1981, a group of girls at a Catholic school in Rwanda claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. Over the next few years they continued to experience visions, some of which contained appallingly violent imagery that appeared to foretell the slaughter of the 1990s. Katori Hall uses these real-life events as inspiration.
Alphonsine (Gabrielle Brooks) is the first girl to have visions. When the “mother of the word” appears to her, she falls into a rapturous trance in which she is impervious to pain and overcome by beauty. While the girl’s pastor, Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), is intrigued and open-minded, Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the head nun, regards such behaviour as blasphemous and attention-seeking. Leo Wringer’s Bishop, meanwhile, suspects she is merely trying to get the handsome Father to notice her.
Eventually two others, the devout Anathalie (Yasmin Mwanza) and the initially sceptical Marie Claire (Pepter Lunkuse) also start to have visions. It appears to spread from one to another. Initially dismissed as witches, they become known as ‘the trinity’. News of their visions reaches the surrounding towns and, eventually, the world beyond. A priest is dispatched from the Vatican (a nicely judged performance from Michael Mears) to test them. At first he’s cynical that something so holy could happen in “the jungle”, but he too is swayed.
Without leaving the confines of the school, Hall deftly sketches in the political backdrop, the animosity towards the Tutsi minority and the ongoing repercussions from the Rwandan revolution, as well as seeding the idea that a miraculous event might be commercially beneficial to a town like Kibeho.
As in The Mountaintop, Hall’s play about Martin Luther King, which James Dacre also directed, at Theatre503 in 2009, this play has supernatural leanings. It resists the urge to debunk. It does not explore in depth other possible explanations for the girls’ behaviour, instead it reinforces the idea of these young women as conduits – it displays faith in their story.
Dacre’s pacy production has a filmic quality; for the most part this works in its favour, though a scene in which all three girls go into a trance simultaneously, as doors slam and objects levitate around them, is unsubtle.
The central trio is excellent, with Brooks, Mwanza and Lunkuse all conveying different combinations of youthful luminosity and adolescent awkwardness as well as capturing the alarming ways in which the visions physically manifest: their limbs quiver as they gabble in tongues. The use of Orlando Gough’s atmospheric choral music and Jonathan Fensom’s evocative schoolhouse set, with its corrugated roof and ribbon of Rwandan red earth, adds to the atmosphere.
The play is at its most resonant when exploring the ever-potent idea of the young female body as a vessel, as a source of wonder but also of power, along with the coming horror of a country about to be cleaved in two by hatred.