Miraculous critique

Bryoni Trezise

Kym Vercoe, Carlos Gomes, Drew Fairley, Katia Molino, Sanctus

Kym Vercoe, Carlos Gomes, Drew Fairley, Katia Molino, Sanctus

Kym Vercoe, Carlos Gomes, Drew Fairley, Katia Molino, Sanctus

In a political climate that bears the hallmarks of a 1950s church revival, the staging of religious subject matter in contemporary theatre runs alongside the Bush Administration’s sermonised rhetoric in the push for electoral victory and Tony Abbott’s resurrection of the anti-abortion issue. Sidetrack Performance Group’s latest production, Sanctus, takes on religion in its most classical of incarnations and tweaks it with a touch of panto-camp wryness in an attempt to cut through this alignment of Church and State mythology. Set in the antiquated world of a simple young priest, Sanctus is Carlos Gomes and Liam Wallington’s adaptation of Friar Bentinho of Saint Anthony by Brazilian playwright Djalma Di Frattini. Written in the late 1980s, the work is an exploration of Catholic and evangelical notions of the divine, the miraculous and of faith. It is also an attempt, as the program suggests, to critique the ways such notions gain weight in a world that ignores both the sacred within religion and the secularity of state life.

In this context, we enter a sacrosanct space. Mystic panpipes float in the gloom. A friar sits, praying, draped in monkish brown robes. In the background beckons the silhouette of a humble church, its small steeple casting shadows out to the edge of the space. Incense burns from an altar outside and peels smoke into the dimness. This is theatrical realism in all its unfamiliarity, with a historical mise-en-scène akin to a BBC medieval drama. Played in Marrickville’s Sidetrack Theatre, I’m not sure whether to read the sober tone as deeply sincere or highly ridiculous. But then, as God’s voice booms wrath at humankind’s bent for illusion and falsity and promptly drops a letter of “mission” from the heavens above, wry humour undercuts the solemnity and gives a taste of the satire to come.

Friar Benjamin’s (Kirk Page) calling is to restore the vandalised and abandoned Chapel of Saint Anthony, but as he begins dusting off the local church iconography 4 religious statues resurrect themselves and with a crack of thunder from above their comedy of “miracles” begins. St Francis, St Anthony, St Clare and Our Lady (Carlos Gomes, Drew Fairley, Kym Vercoe and Katia Molino) stand in holy repose, their faces stretched with expert choral grimace—eyebrows lifted, teeth gleaming—to begin their battle over who can produce the best divine intervention to save the world. What results is an up-tempo, witty burlesque in which the mere prospect of “a papal announcement, an act of healing, the raising of the dead, a statue with bleeding stigmata” becomes cause for the church to debate its own irrelevance in an era “that feeds on celebrity and wickedness.”

Gomes’ theatrical exuberance, the precision of his images, his timing, rhythm and comic technique are all revealed in the expert choreography and physicality of a Mass-turned-musical. Part camped-up pageant figurines, part Commedia stock, the saints jostle, bicker, hymn, shudder and pray; a malleable flock out of kilter with itself and the world it is trying to save. Our Lady wears a knife in her heart that is painfully removed, only to be ironically re-inserted in the name of martyrdom at the close of the piece. St Clare offers an orgiastic rendition of holy service, climaxing with a sly afterglow sigh at the effects of repression. The impeccable production values combine sophistication with simplicity to enable church pews to become objects of suggestion: a pilgrim’s forest, a bed of lust. The performers whirl the pews in the space as poetic evocations of transformation, miracle, acts of the divine; layering physical grace against their more rudimentary caricatured states.

Sanctus is a frivolous portrayal of Catholicism and its various hypocrisies, offering more in surface reflection than deep interrogation. If you can ride with the fun, the polished production and animated performances offer a deliciously gleeful parody of all things sanctified and harmonious. If the humour starts to grate after a while, the play’s claim to social relevance also increasingly wanes. I laughed but felt let down by the didacticism, the kind of critical tactic certain politicians have recently practised only too well.

Sidetrack Performance Group, Sanctus, writer Djalma Di Frattini, translators/adaptators Liam Wallington and Carlos Gomes; performers/devisors Carlos Gomes, Drew Fairley, Kirk Page, Kym Vercoe, Katia Molino; Sidetrack Studio Theatre, Sydney, November 18-28, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 36

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005