The enigmatic dancer, Mata Hari – executed in 1917 as a war-time spy – was a more modern woman than she is generally given credit for. In his one-woman show, Mata Hari: Female Spy, writer-director Gavin Robertson sets the record straight.
Early in his enthralling script, Hari states, ‘I would have been good in the movies, but they came too late. All I have is the theatre.’ Like much of the play, this sentiment closely echoes Hari’s own words, but she needn’t have been so despondent. The theatre, too, can be modern – and it, too, has its place. It certainly lifted Hari from the backstreets of late nineteenth-century Holland to the pinnacle of fin-de-siècle European society, and Robertson’s production goes one further, prising her out of the murky swamp of accusation and chauvinistic prejudice that has for so long defined her. Through his very human characterisation, and Katharine Hurst’s similarly layered portrayal, Mata Hari is no longer a dangerous femme fatale, but a flesh and blood woman with a wry sense of humour, a refreshing self-awareness, and an iron-clad determination to survive.
The part was written with Hurst in mind, and it shows. Playing exquisitely to her strengths, the piece combines the choreography of dance, in which Hurst exhibits a fluidity that is hypnotic, with that of Robertson’s correspondingly elegant directorial style. Utilising six simple bars, minimal props and numerous shimmering veils in a modern style of physical theatre that easily transcends the more negative connotations of the label, Robertson and Hurst together create a moving performance of beautiful clarity and precision.
In the event, it scarcely matters whether Hari was a spy or not, for this is not a tale of moral or political scruples, but of the survival of the human body and spirit. Ultimately, Hari had a point; the movies would have gone some way to recording her for posterity, but in this excellent play, it is her very soul that is restored.