by Chelsea MacKay
Rainy Heart Productions
60 min / Historic Drama / PG
Agent Madeleine is an intriguing play about World War II. It’s based on the life of Britain’s first Muslim war heroine, Noor Inayat Khan, whose code name was Madeleine. She worked for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE’s mission was to “Set Europe ablaze”. Noor was Britain’s first female wireless operator in Nazi-occupied France; she supported the French Resistance. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the UK’s highest civilian decoration. And I bet you’ve never heard of her.
The play, written and directed by Chelsea MacKay, jumps between Noor’s time in the SOE’s training establishment, her brief stint in Paris (SOE’s agents had notoriously short life expectancies), and her imprisonment by the Nazis.
Noor/Madeleine—played with heartbreaking sincerity by Puja Uppal—was an anomaly in many ways. She was the child of an Indian mystic and an American woman from Albuquerque, yet was able to pass for French because of her childhood in France. Her father founded a Sufi Muslim sect whose tenets were divine love, peace and harmony; Noor was brought up respecting Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy, yet she joined the SOE with its violent goals. Her family abjured lying, yet Noor became a spy, a profession defined by deceit. She worked for Britain, but her motivation was to liberate France and she planned to fight Britain to secure India’s independence after the war. She was small and physically weak, but exhibited the courage of a lion, never betraying her contacts to the Nazis, even after months of deprivation and torture.
Nicholas Amott matches Uppal with a superlative performance as Leo Marks, Noor’s “supremely unqualified” (his words) SOE superior. Amott also plays Ernst Vogt, one of her Nazi captors. The cast is rounded out by Jesse Nasmith, a 17-year old who plays a 17-year old Resistance fighter, and Jessie Doucet, who plays a variety of British, American, French and German characters. She is the weakest of the four actors, but this may be due to the fact that before almost every scene she must switch roles and costumes.
Audibility is sometimes a problem, particularly for Doucet. As director, MacKay should have corrected this in rehearsals. When Leo interviews Noor for the SOE job, MacKay positioned Uppal with her back to half of the audience. Either Uppal can’t project her voice when facing away from the audience (it’s a difficult skill for actors to learn), or she wasn’t told to do so by MacKay.
This production suffers from problems common to plays by inexperienced playwrights, such as too many scene changes, and requiring the cast to change roles too often. It’s regrettable that the playwright directed her own play; very few playwrights dare to do so, for good reason. But Noor’s fascinating story, coupled with the quality of Uppal and Amott’s performances, makes me hope that the play will be taken in hand by a dramaturge and an experienced director in a remount after the Fringe.
Agent Madeleine is playing at La Nouvelle Scène Studio B (333 King Edward Ave) until Sunday June 24, 2018.Tickets cost $12. Visit ottawafringe.com for the schedule and box office info. Read more reviews at apt613.ca/fringe.