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A place in the sun

Shakthi Ramani performing Mata Harri english play at Alliance Francise Gallery. Photo: R. Ragu

Shakthi Ramani performing Mata Harri english play at Alliance Francise Gallery. Photo: R. Ragu  

Theatre Nisha’s retelling of courtesan Mata Hari’s life story was both captivating and thorough

Oscar Wilde’s  Salome, inspired by the biblical character of the same name, draws power from the male gaze — her raw, sensuous gyrations as alluring as the lines of her body, barely perceptible beneath the seven veils that shroud it. Death lies on the other side (she has demanded the head of John the Baptist in exchange for the dance) but she continues to sway, peeling off layer after layer, offering her bare self to the people who watch her.

Mata Hari, the Frisian exotic dancer and courtesan who is said to have been a spy and was executed for it a century ago, shot into the spotlight (and into many officers’ beds) due to her adaptation of this dance. And Theatre Nisha’s retelling of the story of her life, which was staged at the Alliance Francaise last weekend, has managed to unearth the core of the woman through that very dance.

Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the Sun must die young, conceptualised and directed by V. Balakrishnan offers an interesting take on the flamboyant, tragic life of Europe’s best-known femme fatale. The production is a one-woman show, with actress Shakthi Ramani relaying the courtesan’s history, accompanied by vigorous physical movement, reminiscent of the arabesque dance moves of a Mata Hari performance. It follows her life from the time she is 16 till her death at the age of 41.

And like the original performance, the dance is accompanied by a shedding of veils. Not just a literal movement but a figurative one as well, the moulting that appears to mark the end of every phase of her life.

What really stands out is the amount of research that has gone into the script and the clever working of facts into the story, without compromising on the entertainment value of it. The tongue-in-cheek, flippant observations made by the performer, and believed to have been uttered by Mata Hari herself, provoke several laughs but the desperation and darkness of her life, beneath the glamour isn’t ignored either. Shakthi, makes a plausible Mata Hari — her strident voice cutting through the strains of oriental music that fill the stage and fluid gestures hold the audiences’ attention right through. Sets are notably absent, but the clever use of lights filtering through Shakthi’s translucent veils and creating shadows on the walls behind, create an atmosphere worth being a part of.

The only major drawback was that at some level the sensuality was a little forced; the actress manages to execute the notion of it effectively but isn’t able to take it to the next level. She didn’t escape her skin and ooze that sultry magnetism that conquered a warn-torn Europe, albeit in a very different way.

Still, the sheer energy and zeal with which she performed, the ingenuity of the script and the way it all came together proved to be commendable. Watching a butterfly flit from flower to flower is very different from observing it mounted and pinned down; the play succeeded in capturing its flight.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 7:56:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/a-place-in-the-sun/article6630288.ece

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