In Western society’s collective memory, Mata Hari is known as a dancer, a lover – and the most notorious female spy in history. Gavin Robertson’s production of Mata Hari: Female Spy sets out to investigate the truth in this description, and the script uses many of her own words. Tasked with the challenge of bringing this iconic yet enigmatic figure to life is actress Katharine Hurst, a regular collaborator of Robertson’s. The Wee Review’s Laura Ingram interviews Hurst about the production in general, and her role in particular.
The play uses Mata Hari’s own words. Does the fact that you’re playing a real person rather than a fictional one make it easier to bond with the character?
I think I bonded more with the fact that there are distinct similarities which I could relate to. Not so much the espionage and imprisonment side but certainly the womanly wiles. She has a strong voice throughout the piece, she’s a survivor, and I related to the feminist (with a small f) element.
Did you know much about Mata Hari before you became involved in this production?
I knew very little. She was a bit of an enigma really. A dancer, a courtesan, a spy? I associated her with those words but knew little else. I knew more about Greta Garbo in the 1931 movie than I did about the real person. I think that may be a common view.
You’ve collaborated with Gavin Robertson a few times now. To what extent have you been able to personally shape the development of the play and/or character?
Gavin always says it is a benign dictatorship. However, he wrote the part specifically for me. It plays to my strengths and as a result there is a lot of me in the portrayal.
You and Gavin both have a physical theatre background – how does this inform the staging of Mata Hari?
There’s a definite precision, a clarity and a neatness to the way we use the set. Both Gavin and I consider all the different elements: the design, the costume, the lighting, as well as the performance itself. We think in visual pictures, not just about what a character is saying. This piece is unusual for us because I am portraying a real person, but the style is engaging and physical. I act, I move the set around and I also dance.
You’ve recently performed the play in the States, ahead of the Edinburgh Fringe – have you found that audiences react differently to the character in different locations?
I think they accept the character in the way that she is portrayed. I think the difference is in the acceptance of the theatrical style. In the USA, this style is more unusual.
You are also the co-founder of Scene Productions, for which you are a director and producer, as well as performer. Do you welcome the chance to play roles like Hari for other producers and directors, in that you are able to give the acting side of things your full attention, or do you prefer to be involved in multiple aspects of production?
It is a lot less stressful, as being employed to interpret a role means I can give that 100% of my concentration. Wearing many hats – publicist, producer, workshop leader – demands a great deal of energy and time. Having said that, I do find it difficult to put those different hats aside as I know the amount of work required to put on a show. I have assisted with the image, publicity and marketing of the show in Edinburgh. Gavin didn’t ask, but I couldn’t help myself. Politely meddlesome would be a good description.
Are there any other historical figures that you would like to play onstage?
Strong, sensual women. Greta Garbo herself, perhaps.
What are the aspects of Mata Hari that audience members most often say they enjoy?
Wherever possible, the script uses her own words. Through those you can sense she has a definite dry sense of humour. I deliver quite a lot of the show with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow. She actually had a very hard life. She was a survivor. I think a British audience in particular responds to the humour that comes from a woman in constant struggle. Visually, the show is beautifully lit and precisely choreographed. The set (6 iron poles) are moveable, and during the show they represent different things: Prison bars, a ship, her suitors – and finally the firing squad. I wear a red corset throughout the show, which again has raised some eyebrows.