Goodbye to Mata Hari (for now)

Writer Abi Hynes blogs about the premiere of 7 Veils: An evening with Mata Hari, and what’s next for the show.

It’s difficult, isn’t it, to say goodnight after such a lovely evening? Saying goodbye is horrible, really…

It must be Cardinal Sin No.1 to quote your own play, but I know how Mata Hari feels. Saying goodbye to a show you’ve lived and breathed for its (in this case, 11 month) development period is really hard. So, before I let go of 7 Veils for the time being, please allow me to indulge in a little post-show round up… 10676201_10152403498326836_9198452152013041287_n To recap, then. I made a show. On New Year’s Eve 2013, Laura and I decided that we wanted to make a solo show together, and now, almost a year later, we’ve had our first performances. We made it in an unusual way. Laura and I have now been working together on theatre and film projects for several years, and the result is a kind of creative synergy that can’t be manufactured in the pressures of the standard 2-4 week rehearsal period. We have an understanding about the kind of work we want to make. When we disagree on something, we know it’s all part of pursuing a shared goal. It’s a rare and special thing. We were also fortunate in being able to give ourselves time to make the show we really wanted to. The decision not to – on this occasion – apply for funding, meant that we traded financial assistance for the freedom to work without restrictions, and to make something that we felt showcased our particular skills and explored what fascinated us. It’s not sustainable forever, of course; with both of us working day jobs, it’s been an exhausting year. But it’s also a luxury, to be able to work only within the boundaries we set ourselves. 10653733_10152403500226836_11210224063719167_n And then there was the creative process itself. Over our last few projects together, Laura and I have developed a way of making theatre that is part devised and part scripted. It varies from project to project, but in this case it went something like this…

  1. Research and discussion. We brought in everything we came across connected to Mata Hari, gradually putting together a timeline of key events in her life. We picked out the bits we were most interested in.
  2. I brought in bits and pieces of script. Sometimes they were lifted from letters, diaries, Wikipedia articles… usually edited and added to and formed into something that might be the start of a scene. We pulled these apart, mercilessly. I went home to rewrite them.
  3. More script cutting – and a lot of experimenting. And, of course, trying to find a structure that makes all our material start to feel like a theatre show.

And, finally, we were fortunate in our choice of subject. Mata Hari is a gift of a character – and really, you couldn’t make it up. I’ll admit – when reading some of our lovely reviews – I was kind of horrified to spot references to her ‘morally reprehensible behaviour’ and ‘distasteful choices’. I like to think that we flatly refuse to judge her in our show. More than that – we cherish, respect and celebrate her (though, admittedly, through the medium of pornography, absinthe shots and sexy dancing).

I miss our girl already. But it’s very comforting to know that we haven’t seen the last of her. We’ve already started to make plans for the show in 2015, so keep an eye out for announcements to follow.

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Find out more

Read our reviews so far

Take a look at our audience responses on Twitter

View our production photos

Read our previous blogs about making 7 Veils from Abi and Laura

Follow @AbiFaro and @FaroProductions on Twitter 10360414_10152403499506836_3074664116286659882_n Thank yous

As Laura generously pointed out in her recent blog, 7 Veils is a solo show on the surface only, and we’ve been incredibly lucky to have the support of a talented and dedicated team. This included our wonderful producer Annika Edge, our composers (Tom Byrne and Sam Lewis-Ellot), our guest directors (Alice Robinson of Clown Lab and Viv Gardner), our technicians (Tom again, and Richard Lomax), our photographer (Phil Benbow), our choreography adviser (Ceris Faulkner), our costume makers (Dan and Alice Rowbottom of Rowbot Street), our trailer creator (Rachel Fernandez-Arias), our brilliant panel who watched the show first stagger to its feet, and our friends Clem and Juul who taught Laura how to do a French accent and pronounce Dutch names and places. Our thanks also go to James Baker and the brilliant team at The Kings Arms, and to Mike Heath, Gayle Hare and the rest of the Studio Salford collective, which we are very proud to be part of.

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