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All through his childhood, V. Balakrishnan imagined Mata Hari to be a “female version of James Bond". She was a dancer who was later accused of being a spy, and executed in France by a firing squad in 1917.

Then, Balakrishnan or Bala—as the artistic director of Theatre Nisha is popularly known—read an article online which changed his perspective. “It said that there was no evidence to frame her. She was just a scared sort of woman who took to dancing to survive. She was in an abusive marriage. Both her children died from syphilis that her husband contracted, yet she was blamed for it. I found this intriguing," he says.

He read a few biographies about her, including “a few really bad ones, whose content bordered on pornographic as the authors were trying to cash in on her image". Then he came across a book that he loved—Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, And The Unknown Life Of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman. It contained a selection of letters Mata Hari had written. This became the main source for his script.

The one-woman show, which will be presented by Shakti Ramani, explores Mata Hari’s life from the time she was a 15-year-old and had her first sexual encounter with a 65-year-old man. “Unfortunately, she was blamed for it and the man was declared completely innocent. It covers her life until the time of her execution. She was about to die but she did not protest, did not whimper, blew her lawyer a kiss, and looked her executioners straight in the eye," Bala adds.

Mata Hari: Butterflies Who Live In The Sun Must Die Young was first staged in June at the Spaces auditorium in Besant Nagar, Chennai. “The response was good in terms of the feedback that we received. People enjoyed the fact that it was like a cabaret performance. The entire show was designed as a woman telling a story while dancing in a salon of men," he says.

While Spaces made room for theatre in a quadrangle, with the audience seated on all four sides of the performer, the venue at Alliance Française provides a proscenium. The audience will be seated on one side of the stage. Keeping this in mind, the crew has made a few changes to the show design. Bala says the experience will be different, but no less.

Theatre Nisha has done five other “one-person shows" this year. These are especially difficult because a single actor has to hold the attention of the audience throughout. “The basic enjoyment of theatre comes from conflict. A one-man show or a one-woman show is all about an actor trying to create a conflict, an illusion, using whatever skills he or she has. It is about an actor celebrating the art of performance," says Bala.

Mata Hari: Butterflies Who Live In The Sun Must Die Young will be presented from 21-23 November, 7pm, at Alliance Française, Nungambakkam. There will be additional shows on 22-23 November at 3pm. Tickets, 100, available onwww.indianstage.in

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Updated: 20 Nov 2014, 10:10 PM IST
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