Though we are all familiar with the phrase “art imitates life,” few performances capture this reality as well as Catalyst Theatre’s The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Inspired by the Special Operations Executives (SOE) of the Second World War, the play follows the story of six female operatives and their superior officer as they attempt to sabotage Nazi forces in Europe.
While the events of the play and the characters are fictitious, they are nonetheless closely tied to history. What’s more, The Invisible offers a glimpse into an aspect of history that has long gone overlooked: the involvement of women, and specifically, women of colour.
As Marie Mahabal, who plays Anna Siddiqui, explains, “It’s a pretty incredible story that we’re getting to tell (and) that I think is pretty relevant right now, actually. We’re telling a sort of historical piece, but at the same time, women coming together and fighting for something, for the greater good, is something that I think resonates right now in 2020.”
Mahabal’s character Siddiqui is based on SOE Noor Inayat-Khan, a British woman from an Indian Muslim family with ties to nobility. Mahabal describes her as “a poet and a musician,” reminding us that Inayat-Khan and her contemporaries were remarkable in their own right, not simply because they were involved with the military.
Kristi Hansen, one of three MacEwan University alumnae to star in the play, echoes this: “It is really interesting to think of feminism in how far we’ve come and how we keep coming back to the same things. This was a really special point in time in that women were being called upon to do these things that were very typically ‘male,’ and being given a lot of the freedom and responsibility in undertaking these tasks for a society that ultimately they were repressed from.”
For Hansen, the opportunity to see her character’s experience reflected by her own was a unique opportunity, as well as a challenge. “For some of us, there’s a lot of responsibility (because) we’re representing another group of folks, like for myself, I’m a disabled actor, I’m an amputee, and the character that I play, who is based on Virginia Hall, is also an amputee.”
“It’s really great to be able to represent a disabled person who also overcame the odds. One of the characters is an Indigenous woman from Canada, so it’s a really amazing way to pull it back to this land and the occupation that has gone on for so long. Y’know, we think about the occupation in Germany as being so far away and … it’s a really great way to pull it back. It’s a big responsibility for some of us representing specific communities of folks and female people as well, so we’re holding space for each other and really honouring all the different folks that make up these characters.”
Hansen’s point about drawing connections between colonial occupation in Canada and Nazi occupation throughout Europe may not be an immediately obvious link to make when watching the play, but it is worth considering.
There is a depth to the narrative belied by the play’s many raucously fun musical numbers and dance routines, and by the time I left the theatre I had both laughed and cried, cliche though it may sound. It was gratifying, in fact, to descend into the Churchill LRT Station at the show’s end and take stock of how many other people had tear-streaked cheeks and runny eyeliner. It is an intensely moving performance, and the fact that it can be traced back to our own country and our own time only makes it more so.
“There’s a lot of parallels in (the) script that were drawn from the oppression that folks were experiencing in Europe, and bringing it back to some of our Canadian plights and some of our modern plights,” Hansen adds, “it’s been a real honour and joy to get to explore these women’s lives and the sacrifices they made and what they believed they were fighting for.”
That this is an exploration of these women’s lives is unmistakable. In addition to their main characters, each of the seven actresses also assume various male roles throughout the play, their body language and voices completely altered, perhaps making them all the more terrifying. A collection of chairs serve as the only set props, with many more occupying space in the rafters to remind audiences of all the absent players in the story.
Hansen adds that the empty chairs are “meant to represent the mens’ voices overhanging” the entire war, and that “the women were usually the invisible ones.” By reversing the politics of visibility through the use of these chairs, The Invisible plays on the notions of who is erased, who is made to sit down and be quiet.
Though it is accurate to say that watching The Invisible made me want to punch all the Nazis, the play’s inspirational subject matter was equally unflinching in its acknowledgement of history’s horrors, and I left the theatre humbled. I want to be as brave and as strong as these women, but look around my province — at rising ideologies of white nationalism, anti-immigration, so-far-right-it-might-be-fascism politics — and worry that I am not.
I suppose that’s what good art does, simultaneously inspires and discomforts, reminds us of where we’ve been, proposes where we can go, but also demands we acknowledge where we are.
At the end of the day, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare was a performance I can only describe in the same words I would use for its real-life counterparts:
Beautiful, brutal, breathtaking.