Theatre

Dance of the butterfly

Theatre artiste V. Balakrishnan. Photo: V. Ganesan

Theatre artiste V. Balakrishnan. Photo: V. Ganesan  

Theatre Nisha’s Mata Hari explores the free spirit behind the femme fatale, says artistic director V. Balakrishnan

She may have seemed like the epitome of a typical female spy — unnervingly seductive, immoral, a femme fatale who used her sexuality to extract information from the men she bedded. But V. Balakrishnan, founder and artistic director of Theatre Nisha, whose play Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the sun must die young is being staged in the city this weekend, begs to differ, “She was never a spy; she didn’t have that sort of training. Yes, she went out with a lot of men, many of whom were army officers as it meant money, status, a good life but she never passed any codes,” he says, adding that it was her uninhibited eroticism that caused her downfall and not really secrets exchanged during pillow talk. “Even one of the members of the French jury that convicted her is believed to have said that there wasn’t enough evidence there to flog a cat. It is very clear she was a scapegoat here. They were losing a battle; they needed to prove a point and she seemed perfect because she embodied all that a moral society is against,” he says.

The play, which captures the life of this woman, born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, is a monologue relayed in the form of a dance performance, “We capture her life, from the time she was 16 and had an affair with the headmaster of her school who was 65 years old, and go on all the way to her execution,” he says. “It talks about her marriage, her divorce, her child’s death, her move to Paris, and her affairs with powerful men. Her life story is explored phase by phase in both movement and speech. But we have not tried to force a perspective.”

The play was a reaction to the way Mata Hari has been portrayed in popular culture, “Most people show her as some sort of female James Bond. There are movies that depict her conveying top secret information through dance movements — that’s ridiculous,” he exclaims. “She was simply a dancer, a woman who loved life, and had many admirers. But the men saw it as dangerous that one day she was with a German officer, the next with a French one, and assumed that she was a spy. She couldn’t have been a conduit — she was too well-known a figure.”

Intrigued by the rumours floating around about Mata Hari, Balakrishnan began reading extensively about her, “I read a lot of biographies and internet articles — many are flippant and over-glamorised but there is some very interesting information there too. I discovered that Mata Hari actually wanted realistic things from life, yet had to take an arduous and difficult path to get it. She was a free-spirited woman who loved theatre, music, poetry, horse-riding and simply wanted to be allowed to be. When she was executed, she did not protest or cry, she blew a kiss to her lawyer, smiled and then died. That is courage of a different level altogether — don’t you think?”

Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the sun must die young is being staged at the Alliance Francaise, Chennai on Friday (7 p.m.), Saturday (3 and 7 p.m.) and Sunday (3 and 7 p.m.).

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 5:49:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/theatre-nishas-mata-hari-explores-the-free-spirit-behind-the-femme-fatale/article6614718.ece

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