History has judged Mata Hari harshly as the archetypal treacherous femme fatale. In The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari, playwright Diane Samuels presents us with a woman condemned in a man's world, facing hostility as much because there's no legitimate place for her in it as because of her actions.
Mata Hari's exotic name is part of her legend, but she was born Margarethe Zelle in Holland in 1876. Her exotic 'Hindu' dances inspired the more memorable moniker, and she had indeed lived in the Dutch West Indies, during her disastrous marriage to a Scot 20 years her senior.
The dancer Mata Hari joined the demi-monde of Paris and Berlin. She danced in public and private - and in the semi-nude, with metal breast plates. When the First World War began, she was in Berlin, mistress of a German nobleman. And she was approached by both the Germans and the French to supply information. In February 1917, she was arrested in Paris and accused of spying for Germany. This is the starting point, in time at least, for Samuels' fascinating play.
As it begins, our heroine (played by film star Greta Scacchi, renowned as somewhat of a femme fatale in her own right) is outside time, alone on Martin John's uncluttered set with an 'unknown soldier' (Simon Greiff), to whom she's inextricably linked - he is destined to be part of the firing squad that executes her. The soldier is a ghostly, mutely sympathetic presence throughout Mata's interrogations by the hostile Captain Bouchardon (a stiff martinet in Jonathan Oliver's well-judged performance) and the seemingly more susceptible young Captain Baudouin (an assured Toby Sawyer).
In the first half of Lawrence Till's well-paced production, Scacchi's brittle Mata Hari works hard to preserve her bravado - and to judge her effect on the men around her. She's the only woman on stage and, apart from her lawyer (aconvincingly ineffectual Leonard Fenton) and that ghostly presence, she has her work cut out to combat male hostility.
In the second half, Mata shares the condemned cell and selected edits from her life with the ministering Sister Leonide, who provides the photographic negative to illuminate our heroine. In a brilliant theatrical device, Valerie Lilley's nun acts out Mata Hari's life story and does so with a full-blooded comic performance that reveals her as a deliciously foul-mouthed sister of mercy. Scacchi and Lilley demonstrate terrific rapport and Scacchi, bravely stripped of her character's beloved make-up, reveals a vulnerability only hinted at earlier.
In the end, the conclusion of Mata Hari's tale may be inevitable, but the journey is full of surprises.