There could not be a better time to write a play about revolutionary commitment and individual freedom. Journalist Paul Mason’s piece about working class female communards exiled to New Caledonia on the back of a colonial project for their part in the 1871 Parisian uprising asks hard questions about what happens to personal freedom and culpability when revolutions are defeated.
Mason has drawn on three sources for this almost biographical work focused on anarchist, feminist, teacher, ethnographer and revolutionary Louise Michel: her own memoirs, her collected legends from the Kanaks’ culture (the indigenous tribe living in New Caledonia) and a literary fiction written in the 1920s, in order to make a play about what she steadfastly would not or could not describe- her interactions with the Kanaks and what happened in her seven years living on their land.
The result is a quasi documentary/dream/fictional testimony like feel which aims, whilst centralising Michel as the main protagonist, to also work as an ensemble piece with focus on Michel’s female comrades in arms and their own particular sufferings.
A secular saint in France today Michel was controversial in her time. The authorities and some of her own comrades and even herself long held the notion that she was manic and on Michel’s return to France the authorities tried to have her locked away in an asylum even as she became a celebrated public figure and speaker.
Michel’s ethnographical writings, evidence of her reaching out to the Kanak tribe rather than colonising them as she was meant (the idea was to civilise the revolutionaries by making them complicit in the colonial project) are considered amateur by some scholars and even the Kanaks make out she embellished or scaled down their legends.
The same attitude is taken of her memoirs that have a high poetical style and offer little in the way of evidence of her dealings with them. Even in modern day New Caledonia there is doubt that Michel was really as involved with the Kanaks and their defeated bloody uprising as she made out.
Mason makes up for it by imagining what might have been and the audience can look at all of this through Michel’s dreamy eyes played by quietly reverent and determined Lisa Moorish or through the eyes of her female companions, especially grieving mother Nathalie, played by an emotional Jane MacFarlane, who displays a hatred of and suspiciousness towards the Kanaks.
The suspicion is not unfounded, in Mason’s play the Kanaks have a word for their own women folk which means “nothing” and yet perhaps treat Michel with reverence, calling her “Mama.” Mason’s discrepancy nicely illustrates the complexities and hypocrisies that might arise when a culture is colonised: the Kanaks might be affording Michel the respect they deny their own women simply because she represents the colonising forces. Or “Mama” might also be a respectful (perhaps) reference to Michel’s seeming asexuality: she was known as the Red Virgin of Montmartre.
A more intelligent reading though would be that Mason is simply alluding to the fact that the Kanaks were prepared to offer her the respect that she afforded them.
Mason nicely contrasts the conflicting attitudes within the all female communards’ circle as they try to come to terms with their deportation: Ottilie Mackintosh as a drunken and anxious Marie and Robyn Hoedemaker as Adele give a realistic portrayal of female survivors who don’t quite know what has hit them. Whilst they fragment and embrace Nathalie’s racist notions towards the Kanaks and fantasise about being pardoned by France through numerous appeals, Michel is steadfastly non conforming.
It might be said that just as Michel described the Kanaks stories as if hearing them firsthand “The storyteller, half-asleep, half-awake, tells while dreaming stories that we listen to while dreaming” Mason, in a similar spell like way, makes us believe that what happens on stage is real and not fictionalised.
Anna Orton’s crate like design which doubles up as both the barricades in Paris and the cell like blocks in New Caledonia is symbolic of the set of attitudes and experiences most of the women carry with them to the Ducos Peninsula. Fiona Rigler’s costume represents how the women are caught in the layers of the past and memory and cannot escape. Tellingly, Michel wears a man’s shirt, signalling that she is still prepared to go into combat and has lost none of her revolutionary ardour.
Director Sasha McMurray deals with the Kanaks’ episodic interventions by having them circle the stage and watch the action: we cannot forget that this land is theirs and that the colonisers are in danger of being colonised or at least defeated themselves.
The Kanaks’ dialogue, actualised by Jerome Ngonadi and David Rawlins with a quiet intensity, is peppered with mystical imagery and mystery, setting them apart from Michel’s comrades who swear at every turn. It might feel a simple aesthetic choice by Mason, but it readily aligns the Kanaks with Michel’s own poetical rhetoric.
Michel stands quite literally aloof with them in a transcendental mingling similar to that which Victor Hugo describes in his poem dedicated to her and from which the play takes its title. Michel and the Kanaks are also great storytellers and Mason draws on the Kanaks’ aural storytelling history by making it a feature within the play, weaving a magical potency.
The show is in need of a larger space, somewhere where the intimate can mix with the play’s epic nature. The play’s characters also require development and the play itself could do with a bit more exposition, but these things can be put down to Mason’s play-writing inexperience and should be easily remedied.
Mason has been compared to being a John Pilger rather than a Barrie Keeffe. But there is no reason why we can’t have a thinker like John Pilger in theatre.
The strange almost emotionally defunct style of the production- I’ll quote Hannah Arendt here although she was alluding to something slightly different “In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy”– allows the audience to ask one question: what happens to liberated souls when revolutions end or are defeated? Can people go back to what they were, or do they undergo a transformation?
Michel it seems, by being almost peculiarly emotionless and objective, remains free of hypocrisy at least.
Central to Michel’s thinking was that human rights are universal and she would not allow anything to compromise this. It might cause today’s revolutionaries pause for thought in a world where everyone, everywhere, endures some form of complicity when they are caught in systems and institutions which they might secretly despise.
Ultimately we are forced to ask the question: where are and who are the real rebels today and what do they sacrifice?
at the White Bear Theatre until 20th May
Photo: Lisa Moorish as Louise Michel, Jane MacFarlane as Nathalie, Ottilie Mackintosh as Marie and Robyn Hoedemaker as Adele. Photo Richard Davenport