BWW Reviews: MATA HARI, St James Theatre Studio, June 17 2014

June 18
7:12 AM 2014
BWW Reviews: MATA HARI, St James Theatre Studio, June 17 2014

That Dutch-born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle re-invented herself as Mata Hari: woman of mystery, the first exotic dancer of Europe, and a temptress who entertained men in the early Twentieth Century is beyond doubt - after that, things get tricky. Here was a woman who moved between nation states at a time when borders were fortified by arms; who moved between powerful men when women were meant to know their place; and who, maybe, moved between sides when war was afoot and lives at stake.

We meet Mata Hari in her cell, contemplating the firing squad that waits for her, whom she will look straight in the eye as she did all men. We hear of her disastrous marriage, of her visit to the Dutch East Indies, of the loss of one child and the separation from the other - and we learn of her great success on the Parisian stage. Then we hear of her downfall, entangled with officers who had the uniforms and money she could never resist, but who were more interested in information than sex.

Using photos and extracts from Mata Hari's letters, Aletia Upstairs gives new life to a figure shrowded with exotic mythology. This Mata Hari is no male fantasy, but a woman who made a bad match, created a new persona from the ashes of the old one, and was ultimately undone by her inability to resist the indulgences that had sustained her for so long.

Presented as a cabaret, Aletia Upstairs is a compelling figure, sometimes dressed in a funereal black shroud; sometimes in full exotic Eastern dancing girl garb. She sings a variety of songs with a torch song singer's intensity and no little skill, the emotional rollercoaster of Mata Hari's life illustrated as much by the music as the words. At the end of each number, you're unsure whether to applaud or to wipe away a tear.

After just a hour, barely enough to scratch the surface of so full, so short, a life, Aletia is thanking us in her faint South African accent and another woman has been transformed, Nearly 100 years on from her subject's death. Mata Hari, the show, like the woman herself, is a strange, attractive, slightly disorienting diversion, a thing of great beauty, tinged with sadness. .

For information about Mata Hari performances, please click here.

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Gary Naylor Gary Naylor is chief reviewer for and feels privileged to see so much of London's theatre. He writes about cricket at and also (read more...)

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