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5 May 2017

Divine Chaos of Starry Things: Paul Mason’s take on French anarchist Louise Michel reviewed

Paul Mason’s new play about Michel is admirably far from a hagiography.

By Helen Lewis

When the anarchist Louise Michel was tried by the French government after the collapse of the Paris Commune in May 1871, she ­demanded to be executed. “Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little lump of lead, I demand my share,” she told them. “If you are not cowards, kill me!”

The council of war refused and instead sent her to New Caledonia, an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Her revolutionary fervour remained undimmed during her seven years there; she supported the local Kanak people in their rebellion against the French in 1878.

Michel’s imprisonment and exile are the subject of Paul Mason’s new play, Divine Chaos of Starry Things, whose title comes from Victor Hugo’s poem about her. Performed at the tiny White Bear Theatre, it has just six actors (four women playing French prisoners and two men playing Kanaks) and minimal scenery and staging. A few scraps of fabric underpin the narrative – the women remove their formal outerwear as time passes on the sweaty island and climb the hill every year to wave a red flag to the men in the next-door prison camp.

It is hard to resist the temptation to view this play through the lens of its author’s public persona. A broadcast journalist-turned-activist, Mason saw the fallout from the 2007-2008 financial crash and the Arab spring as the beginning of a new age of protest. His bestselling books Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere and PostCapitalism keenly anticipate the disruption of the status quo. Unfortunately, the signs so far are not good. Egypt was taken over by the generals, Syria lurched into civil war and in Greece the Syriza government was humbled by European banking bosses. Meanwhile, the “sharing economy” seems more likely to lead to a world of low-paid, insecure work than to fully automated luxury communism.

Mason was also an enthusiastic backer of Jeremy Corbyn and the attempt to remake the Labour Party as a grass-roots movement, writing in 2016 that for “Corbyn to become prime minister means Labour will have to win as an insurrection or not at all”. (It says something about the state of ­left-wing politics that he felt the need to add: “For the sake of clarity, this is a metaphor, not an actual call for armed insurrection.”)

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He clearly admires Michel, choosing her story for a 2013 episode of the BBC Radio 4 series Great Lives. Seen in that light, his portrayal of her in this play is admirably far from a hagiography. To be frank, she is joyless and irritating, in the way that all monomaniacs are. The other women just want to make the best of life on New Caledonia and perhaps even gain a pardon and return home. Michel wants to hold out for nothing less than a full amnesty.

The audience’s sympathy is therefore drawn to her fellow prisoners, particularly the bookbinder Nathalie Lemel (superbly played by Jane MacFarlane), who lost three children to hunger, war and disease before joining the revolution. There are moments of subtlety, such as the text’s insistent mention of what happened at Belleville – where, it eventually emerges, hostages were massacred – and which of the women was present. We see Marie (Ottilie Mackintosh) display brittle bravado as she remembers shooting a soldier in the face, and Michel is coolly unrepentant about her use of violence at the barricades.

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There are also missteps. The play begins with Marie shouting a string of profanities in a cockney accent (think Billie Piper in Doctor Who), and Act II opens with a PG-rated lesbian love scene between our heroine and Adele (Robyn Hoedemaker). It might well be true to life – what happens on New Caledonia stays on New Caledonia – but their sexual relationship is never again mentioned, so it feels oddly gratuitous. As Michel, Lisa Moorish brings intensity but a limited emotional range, and a couple of her lines are positively Wikipedian. After hearing one of the Kanaks explain how badly the French are treating the land, she intones: “We call that colonialism.”

Still, the play breezes along, helped by a taut, 105-minute running time, and I found myself intrigued to know whether Michel would get off New Caledonia, and whether she would die feeling broken by the failure of the Commune. The programme states that Mason wanted to explore “what happens when downtrodden people ­experience the transformative power of mass action, only to be defeated”. On 9 June, he might get another writing prompt.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things by Paul Mason is at the White Bear, London SE11 and runs until 20 May.

This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution