Edinburgh International Festival


The Book of Life

Church Hill Theatre

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Odile Gakire Katese is already sitting comfortably as the audience enter for the Congo born Rwandan writer and performer’s meditation on the aftermath of the 1994 genocide of her country, when up to as many as an estimated one million people were killed by state sanctioned militia during the Rwandan Civil War. Introducing herself as Kiki, Katese emanates a cosy charm a million miles away from the subject of her presentation.

If it weren’t for the eight women flanking her sat behind drums, she could be talking to you in your living room. The women’s’ intermittent displays of choral song make things even more welcoming. Only when Katese starts reading letters penned by those from all sides who survived the purging to those who maybe didn’t does the utter seriousness of her endeavour take hold.

These are letters she solicited from people, like a one woman reconciliation committee, or some questing folklorist intent to keep a set of very personal histories alive. Out of this sharing of stories comes the book of the title, a vital archive of personal hand me down memories.

Under the direction of Ross Manson of Canadian theatre company, Volcano, this is brought out into the open and illustrated by Kristine White’s shadow puppetry and animation. This is also applied to an episodic fable told between each story. The eight women drummers who form Ingoma Nshya: The Women Drummers of Rwanda, founded by Katese alongside her Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda, are the life-force to all this, reclaiming it with composer Mutangana Moise’s music as a revolutionary act subverting cultural taboos regarding women playing drums.

With the audience gently invited to muse creatively on those who shaped them in a way that doesn’t require them to leave their seats, the result doesn’t so much mourn those lost, but honours and treasures them in a glorious dance of life that sounds like a nation reborn.

Until August 16 - https://www.eif.co.uk/events/the-book-of-life