The Book of Life – Church Hill Theatre

Co-created, Written and Performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and Directed by Ross Manson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Loss is handled in every culture with an abject difference. From the celebration of life to a more sombre act of grief and period of mourning. The Book of Life finds a humane way to push forward with a heart full of hope.

Rwandan artist and activist Odile Gakire Katese poses a question surrounding just how we look to rebuild a life after the devastation of loss, and in this case, loss in such a volatile and upsetting manner. In creating The Book of Life in association with the Edinburgh International Festival; Volcano, Canada; and the Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda – Katese has crafted a piece of resilient theatre which seeks to heal and reconcile with the medium of spoken word, music, and visual artistry.

Indeed, It takes a few moments to recognise the truth and violence in the stories Katese is regaling us with. The Book of Life is precisely a story of life and moving forward, not one of revenge or stagnation. The candid nature with which she tells audiences of the fate of her grandmother, to die in such a horrifically brutal manner, reinforces the matter-of-fact nature of The Book of Life. This performance is not forced dredging of the past to inflict pain or revenge but to lament and remember the relationship which was lost between Katese and her Grandmother.

Sculpting Rwandan folklore around the letters of survivors of the 1994 genocide, The Book of Life is a fine tribute to the power and influence of storytelling and memory when channelled through a sincere and strong pair of eyes. Odile Gakire Katese is not only a terrifically enrapturing telling of tales but a comforting presence and sense of responsibility and authority.

Evoking the raw beauty of writing, and indeed its simplicity, Ross Manson’s production finds the act of letter writing the initial stage towards an eventual acceptance of fate, and our inability to control aspects other than our own. A backdrop of sorts to the spoken words of Katese, The Book of Life has the tremendous privilege of working with the Ingoma Nshya: Women Drummers of Rwanda. Their rhythm and control of music is innate, their strikes an extension of their limbs, and their encore at the finale borders on too short – showcasing the insane degree of talent they possess, pushing back against the disagreeable ideas that the women should stay away from the joyful expression of music.

Their music provides an additional score to Kristine White’s puppetry, which feels underutilised. A tremendously inventive and charming affair which, if one were to close their eyes, wouldn’t lose much in the way of storytelling or theme. It serves as an enhancement, rather than a structure of the production. The shadow puppetry is still a great addition, the artistry evoking a more carved or tapestry form of artistic creation than that of silhouette.

A lament, and perhaps even celebration of life, of families forged in grief and distress, The Book of Life is a powerfully emotive fusion of music, spoken word and visual overlays. Odile Gakire Katese’s presence is a benefit to all lucky enough to witness her journey to form a relationship with someone she never truly met. But more, it allows and encourages audiences to express their joy – even in their darkest hours.

Resilient Expression of Art

The Book of Life runs at Church Hill Theatre from August 13th

Information for which may be obtained here.

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