Exchange Theatre’s Noor: A True Story Of Liberté brings the history of a female WWII spy to life with detailed research and plenty of audience interaction – but a more carefully honed narrative would ensure the story feels as engulfing as it ought to.
The audience are met by Fanny Dulin, David Furlong and Nadia Nadif transcribing names and nationalities onto stickers for each of us to wear as we file into the Tristan Bates Theatre. Once seated, we’re introduced to a relatively unknown WWII heroine called Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan who worked undercover for the French resistance. The introduction feels like an educational special one would encounter on CBBC and the staging of Noor’s geographical history, although creative, doesn’t quite do enough to engage older audience members. Exchange Theatre’s first attempt at audience interaction is at this moment as they try to get a good sport to physically place himself on the stage in relation to the location written on his name tag. The idea of turning the Tristan Bates stage into an imaginary world map is clear but the execution is somewhat crude.
Whilst the beginning of Noor: A True Story of Liberté is underpowered, the company taps into the strength of the play when they bring a young volunteer on stage. They encourage her to ask Nadia (who’s playing Noor at that moment) a question about her life. Here, they explain Noor’s love is storytelling and with the help of the little girl, act out one of the fables Noor created. As the fable is about animals, the company cleverly uses their bodies and pieces of fabric to create the characters. At this point, their acting style makes much more sense – as does the educational nature of the dialogue.
The tone they create shifts dramatically when an older, more cynical audience member is brought on stage to ask Noor a question. It is no surprise as his question concerns her Sufism and how that influenced her war efforts. The company initially seems uncomfortable when this particular audience member quips back at them after they act out Noor’s history with her religion. Eventually, we find out that this man is no audience member but actually part of the company. This twist is convincingly played out and drills in the spy element of the story. We have successfully been duped.
The introduction of espionage presents a definite Volta in Noor: A True Story of Liberté where the pace picks up. There is more multimedia involved with voice recordings, sound effects such as that of morse code,and projection utilised to show Noor’s spy organisation. It’s almost as if the company was walking the audience through the basics at the beginning and now they can get into the more thrilling elements of the story. They also utilise the entire space of the Tristan Bates theatre far more effectively as the climax builds in the story. However, despite this, the company doesn’t fully manage to convey the stakes of Noor’s undertakings. The elements of the story that are spoken in French touch on the sheer danger and fear of her involvement with The Resistance, but this may be lost on audience members who don’t speak the language.
One can’t help but to feel as though the creators of Noor: A True Story of Liberté had two audiences in mind. That of a much younger audience, and a more conventional, older audience. What resulted was a tension in tone where we flipped between a noir play and something more akin to Aesop’s fables. Noor’s story has been incredibly well-researched and the company is extensively knowledgeable about her life. They are therefore able to interact with the audience and improvise with authority which is fabulous to watch. However, at moments they veer into purely documentary territory, especially at the beginning where they are heavy on the facts and thin on the narrative. The company would do well to have two different versions of the play that cater to both younger and older audiences alike as they do well with these elements but aren’t quite able to marry them seamlessly.
Exchange Theatre has evidently conducted thorough research on the life of Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan and bring her to life in imaginative ways. They involve the audience throughout the piece and are able to capture a compelling element of the machinations of espionage. However, it would elevate the play if they dedicated more stage time to exploring the risks Noor was taking – and to tighten the narrative that pursues around that.