Edinburgh Fringe 2015
“The Great War: while millions of men struggle and fight in the mud and hell of the trenches, one woman’s story begs to be told. Mata Hari, the most notorious female spy in history. Or was she? Dancer, lover, confidante, contradiction, liar. Executed in 1917, inspired by her own words, this is her story… the story of a set-up?”
Was Mata Hari a spy? Well, it depends how you define spy, and who you believe. Writer, Gavin Robertson’s Mata Hari is able to speak from beyond the grave and tell and show the story herself in a compelling account that blends physical theatre with storytelling.
Robertson’s tale is playful with Time, and his Mata Hari is able to survey the times after her death and comment upon it. She looks back over her life, to its critical incidents and pieces together her biographical thread. A woman who “enjoyed herself”, her personum enabled a rebirth, her new identity became a vessel for that enjoyment and the transformation, even partial exorcism, of an earlier life, under another name, of a time of trouble and less happiness.
Mata Hari muses, not only on her life, but also her legacy, and this she shares with us in a direct piece of storytelling that never fails to hold interest. Katharine Hurst offers us a very precise performance and that precision is to be found right down to the ends of her fingertips. A feature of Robertson’s direction (he is also a solo physical performer himself) is that most of this attention to detail sinks into the piece. You probably won’t notice it, but it is there. What you will see is its effect. When Mata Hari dances, it is effective because it has been worked on with a care for every single micro-movement. Hurst meets that with her own skill, interacting with the original score (created by Danny Bright), and the character we are shown is engaging, wry, tragic and accessible. The character slips only occasionally when the performer’s accent also slips and a few words or phrases of a more modern voice appear. That needs a little more work. Mata Hari is presented as a fairly refined, rich soul and a 21st century voice has no place in the piece.
This is also a trial of the woman, not only as a spy, but also a moral trial, an attempt to allow her to explain and justify who she was, and why she was. We are shown episodes from her life, anchored in a repeated return to the final moments of that life, fallen low, locked away in Saint-Lazare prison.
Staging is simple, there’s clever use of some fabric to invoke the essence of the character. It’s a visually interesting and effective piece of theatre, built on a foundation of strong choreography and focused, nuanced acting. Add the score, some crystal clear sound effects and a superbly delivered monologue and you have a textured production, a story worth hearing and, of course, was she a spy? You’ll need to see this piece to make up your own mind!
What makes me say it is textured? Firstly, the structure of the piece. We jump around in time and are offered the pieces of a puzzle, deliberately not a complete picture.
Mata Hari is selective in what she reveals, but she reveals much. She is candid with us, but also she interprets an earlier life from the perspective of, not only a later one, but from a new identity. She presents herself as a public figure, revels in that, and yet we are also invited into her private thoughts and fears. We are shown her dancing with the veil – sexy, provocative confident. But we are also shown her pleading for her life.
These polarities, this bathos, and the tragic humour that emerges at times, all give this piece a depth beyond a mere character piece. Katharine Hurst is an excellent performer and is able to bring us Mata Hari and hold that character fully and believably throughout. Images remain with me as I write this review, fragments and memories. Just like a life remembered. Highly recommended work.