The History Thieves

Writer Abi Hynes blogs about the relationship between 7 Veils and the ‘real’ history of Mata Hari.

There’s a lot of it about at the moment. The UK has got Centenary Fever; cue agonisingly repetitive productions of First World War plays, and even-more-painfully-manipulative-than-usual Christmas adverts.

But I can’t judge, because I’ve been guilty of jumping on this cynical/nostalgic band wagon as well.

The real Mata Hari

The real Mata Hari

There were a few basic criteria when actor Laura Danielle Sharp and I first sat down together to choose a woman from history whose life we could turn into a solo theatre show – something we’d been wanting to make together for a long time.

  1. She had to have had a good innings. Laura was interested in playing the same character at different ages (one of her many talents on display in 7 Veils), so we needed some scope there.
  2. Her life should have been touched, but not dominated, by World War I. Links enough to let us put the word ‘centenary’ in all our marketing, but not enough to tie us to – you know – actually having to write a play about the war.
  3. She had to be interesting. There had to be enough research about her out there for us to get our teeth into.
  4. And finally (I added this one) – she couldn’t be one of history’s ‘good girls’. Nurses and their admirable, traditionally feminine ilk went straight out of the window. No Florence Nightingales for us, please; I wanted the rebel women, the ones with the uncomfortable histories that have retained the power to make us anxious or uncertain. Histories with space for us to do some writing in the margins, and be wrong, like everyone else who’s tried before us.

We came up with an incredible shortlist of bad-ass women, but in the end, it was Mata Hari we chose, despite her wilfully breaking Rule No. 1 (she died at just 41). Looking back, I realise it couldn’t have been otherwise. I mean – just look at her. She’s irresistible.

A colour postcard of Mata Hari at the peak of her fame

A colour postcard of Mata Hari at the peak of her fame

She’s also a bloody gold mine when it comes to finding starting points for research. Take a look at our Mata Hari Pinterest board of images – which barely even scratches the surface. I quickly became fascinated by the ‘relics’ of her that suddenly seemed to crop up everywhere I looked.

Here is just a fraction of the list of ‘Mata Hari’ things we’ve found…

  • biographies
  • letters
  • transcripts of her trial
  • records of her execution
  • descriptions of her performances as an exotic dancer
  • a fictionalised ‘diary’ written by her father
  • pornography
  • underwear
  • holiday resorts
  • computer games
  • a Ukranian DJ (seriously)
  • absinthe

I feel very proud of the show we’ve made. It’s been a truly collaborative effort, and it couldn’t have been managed without the creative input of our brilliant producer Annika Edge, the talents of wonderful guest directors like Alice Robinson and Viv Gardner, who both gave up their time to come into some of our rehearsals and lend us their expertise, and our truly phenomenal musician/composers, Tom Byrne and Sam Lewis-Ellot, who have created an original score for the show. It’s been a murky and sometimes difficult process. Over several years of working together, Laura and I have developed a way of making work that is half scripted and half devised. I gathered research, scribbled ideas, scripted scenes, and brought them to Laura for scrutiny. We then pulled this work apart, threw things away, discovered new ideas that made me dash away and completely rewrite scenes. I knew things were working really well when we started brutally cutting whole sections of dialogue: ‘We don’t need to say that anymore, because we can just show it.’

It has felt like a very honest process. Laura, Annika and I have all been deeply involved in the research for this project, and we’ve all taken ownership of the play and given to it parts of ourselves. It has felt like we have been in dialogue with history; like Mata Hari has had a hand in its creation all the way through.

Laura rehearsing the 'porn scene' (have we mentioned it's not really a family show?)

Laura rehearsing the ‘porn scene’ (have we mentioned it’s not really a family show?)

We were never interested in setting out to tell the ‘truth’ about Mata Hari. This is because, when dramatising the life of a ‘notorious’ woman, trying to draw any certain conclusions starts to feel like a trap. She becomes either the evil seductress, or the innocent victim – both fetishised, unhelpful stereotypes of the sort that history loves, that only create further distance from us and the real woman. Mata Hari was also a wonderful liar: she told different journalists different versions of how she came to be an exotic dancer; she deliberately crafted her own identity as an unsolvable mystery, which became a huge part of her appeal. But a double agent, working for the Germans, responsible for the death of thousands of soldiers? We still have no idea.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest

Instead of trying to answer that question, I hope that by putting contradictory histories next to each other and saying: ‘Look!’, we do reveal a truth that I feel able to stand by. That no one’s story is the property of the storytellers, however authoritative they sound. There is no such thing as objective history. There is always an agenda.

But of course – for all our good intentions – we’ve appropriated her for our own purposes. We’re all history thieves in the end, whatever kind of ‘truth’ the researcher/writer/performer/director sets out to find. We steal other people’s real stories and we mould them to suit our own narrative needs. The game we play with our audience is one of wide-eyed innocence: ‘Hey – we’ve put Mata Hari in the driving seat. She said it, not us!’ But our Mata Hari is not the real Mata Hari, and never could be. All we’ve been able to do is embrace that, and acknowledge the gift given to us by her murky and still very much unresolved history.

I hope you’ll come and meet our Mata Hari when we open the show at The Kings Arms this week. But, even more than that, I hope the real Mata Hari would be pleased with what we’ve done with her story. And I hope she would forgive us for using it to tell stories of our own.

Find out more

For the abbreviated history of Mata Hari, Wikipedia is not a bad place to start…

Read Laura’s blog about making the show

Book your tickets for 7 Veils: An evening with Mata Hari 

Take a look at our rehearsal photos

Follow Abi and Faro Productions on Twitter and see tweets about the show using #7Veils

2 thoughts on “The History Thieves

  1. Pingback: What’s on at the theatre? (17-30 November) | Cultural Shenanigans

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