White Bear Theatre 25 April – 20 May. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
After a cursory (and ultimately unnecessary) glimpse of the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, Paul Mason’s play imagines the convicted female revolutionaries’ lives as both prisoners and colonists on New Caledonia. Louise Michel’s revolutionary zeal and vision of social, racial and gender equality was undiminished, and she was undoubtedly active in the Kanak uprising on New Caledonia, although she refrains from discussing her specific contributions, both on New Caledonia and in Paris, in her memoirs. Mason fills in the gaps in this episodic and fragmented play which, although saying much about issues that are still extremely relevant today, suffers from having a split personality.
The main problem is Louise. Admittedly, her photograph in the programme gives the impression of a bit of a cold fish, but Mason has written her, and Lisa Moorish portrays her, as a near sociopath. Her unending haranguing about equality and justice, her interest in the Kanak culture and her everyday interactions all come across as part of an intellectual experiment. This is a character who just doesn’t know how to live. Even her sharing of stories and knowledge about the Kanak ancestors and their relationship with the land, which could have been beautiful moments, all have the detached air of a scientist viewing everyone around her with cold interest. The whole role seems like an illustrated lecture.
The other convicts, on the other hand, are mostly creatures of pure emotion. The only well balanced character is Nathalie (Jane MacFarlane) – scorned and belittled by Louise for her pragmatism. Adele (Robyn Hoedemaker) and Marie (Ottilie Mackintosh) are almost caricatures – you can’t have a story of Parisian revolution without a prostitute and a drunk, can you? But these two at least show some real passion and humanity, even though Adele’s sacrifice was not just to save Marie, but to keep the authorities from finding out the truth about the deaths of hostages. Adele and Nathalie’s conversation about the killings is a highlight of the play – in fact, it’s only when these three convicts talk about the revolt that it seems real, with human consequences. When Louise reels off lists of deaths and atrocities, it’s just facts and numbers.
The portrayal of the Kanak is also problematic. Jerome Ngonadi and David Rawlins do a fine job with what they are given, but, having lived and worked alongside modern Fijian warriors for many years, Mason’s version of colonial Melanesia is a bit 1960s Disney. The attempt to portray the unbreakable bond with ancestors and the land is laudable, but the attitude of the Kanak men towards the female convicts, and their sudden change from subdued ecowarriors to full on war paint is a little simplistic. In the play, Louise Michel appears to dress up the carnage of the Paris Commune with tales of an enchanted red flag that magically protects warriors, and surely must have known how the Kanak’s uprising would end. Again, Mason makes this whole thing seems like her orchestrating an interesting social experiment.
Director Sasha McMurray does fine things with the material, creating a hot and sweaty atmosphere of impending doom; and the committed cast give their all, but the production comes across as a well-meant history lecture shoehorned into what could have been a moving play.