We all know Mata Hari, don’t we? The slinky seductress, exotic dancer and spy who was arrested as a double agent and executed by a French firing squad in 1917, just as the First World War was coming to a close and all sorts of scores were starting to be settled. In modern terms, she’s a brand – used to flog perfume and other less savoury items that could do with a bit of a cachet and mysterious allure.
But is that all there is to the woman also known as Margaretha Gertrude Zelle MacLeod? And is even that really true? That’s the premise adopted by this hugely enjoyable and intriguing new one-woman play, penned by Abi Hynes. Irreverent, funny and moving, it’s performed with considerable verve and nerve by Laura Danielle Sharp, a familiar figure on the Manchester fringe scene, not least for her appearances at 24:7 over recent years.
“We knew we wanted to make a solo show about a woman that history hadn’t necessarily been kind to,” explains Hynes. “The research and development process has been a fascinating journey of discovery – of untangling our own version of Mata Hari’s story from all the historical baggage that comes along with her. I didn’t want to write a play that would feel at home in a ‘living museum’. Instead, we’ve tried to make a show that has fun with history, that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but has something big to say that’s still important right now.” The play, she continues, tackles issues about how we choose to remember infamous women, “idolising or demonising them, sometimes both simultaneously”.
It opens with Mata Hari performing her world-famous ‘dance of the seven veils’, supposedly for the last time, yet still enduring the ignominy of having to clear the theatre for an incoming show. Feisty to the last, she decides instead to reclaim her own history for the audience, pointing out that it was Margaretha Gertrude Zelle MacLeod who was executed, not her, that she’s Mata Hari, someone entirely different and very much still alive.
She’s someone who’s exotic, exciting and wordly-wise, not the dreamy, desperate schoolgirl who married a soldier only to have him infect her with syphilis, which killed one of her children. Of course she took money from a German, she protests, she took money from lots of men.“The more the piece developed, the more excited I became by Mata Hari, as a real person and a cultural icon,” says Sharp, whose performance on the opening night was wonderfully full of mischief, with the default set to ‘sexy’. “We set out to make a show that would do her justice, but not necessarily in the way you might expect when dealing with a historical figure,” she says. “I hope she’d be proud.’’
Oh, and if it’s hard to imagine Mata Hari ordering a pint in Salford’s Kings Arms, just remember that, a few years ago in Manchester, it was not uncommon to come across the comparably iconic figure of Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico devouring fish and chips. Stranger than fiction, as they say…
By Kevin Bourke
What: 7 Veils: An Evening With Mata Hari
Where: Studio Salford, Kings Arms
When: until November 23, 2014, various times
More Info: http://faroproductions.wordpress.com/whats-on/