Groping Towards the Godly
Local shows take up the religious quest
By Richard Lord
Peter Shaffer is something like the Graham Greene of the British stage. His substantial body of work can be neatly divided into ‘Entertainments’ (as Greene dubbed his middle-brow detective and crime novels) and more serious works where both writers took up large issues such as politics, psychology and religion.
Shaffer’s first big theatrical success was Five-finger Exercise, which skated deftly over the thin ice of sexual frustrations and misunderstandings in a middle-aged woman’s infatuation with a young Viennese piano teacher whom she mistakenly thinks is likewise taken with her.
From there, Shaffer set out on his forked path. Shorter plays like Black Comedy and White Lies were clever, well-executed entertainments which demonstrate how good these things can be when done by an intelligent craftsman. Lettuce and Lovage, despite the radical environmentalist issues pasted onto the story, is essentially a frolic with two middle-aged women who are so diligently loveable you just want to strangle them.
But then we have Shaffer’s ‘serious’ works, where laughs are carefully rationed and the playwright reaches for the super-nova of big themes, where psychology and religion intersect, or - more often - collide. Perhaps the most famous of these ‘serious Shaffer’ outings are Equus and Amadeus. Despite the strong superficial differences between the two, an underlying theme links these works. Equus involves a British psychiatrist assigned to treat a teenager accused of blinding horses left in his care as a stable-boy; Amadeus examines the way Antonio Salieri, a mediocre late 18th century composer, takes his vengeance on the God who has denied him musical genius by plotting the death of the crude, foul-mouthed eternal adolescent in whom the Almighty has deposited that spark of genius - one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The same theme also underlies the opening play in this Shaffer direction, The Royal Hunt of the Sun. This effort, first performed in 1964, is nowhere near as accomplished a piece of theatre as the two later works, but it does establish the core themes that were to occupy Shaffer over the next 20 years.
Royal Hunt is the story of the conquest of the Incas by a ragtag band of Spanish adventurers under the determined leadership of Juan Pizarro. Now, Pizarro was evidently one of the most vicious, greedy and genocidally-prone of the Spanish Conquistadors, a gang known for its viciousness, greed and fondness for genocidal activities. It is estimated that before Pizarro and his successors finished their conquests, 90% of the Incas had fallen to either Spanish swords, Spanish-ignited blazes, or diseases the Spanish had brought over with them from Europe.
However, in Royal Hunt, Shaffer romanticises this vicious conqueror, even as he also romanticises other characters such as the main priest. (If you can imagine a religious fanatic eager to kill anyone who does not accept his faith being a romanticisation.)
But Shaffer is not interested in providing a staged history lesson here; he is set himself out some more interesting paths to pursue. What Shaffer, in fact, does here is to take the coarse clay of the historical Pizarro and mold it into a sympathetic mystic desperately seeking something he is not been able to find in the ordered world of his native Spain and its rigid brand of Catholicism.
Shaffer’s Pizarro starts out thinking he, like most of his fellow conquistadors, is only looking for gold and related riches. But then he discovers the true source of his quest when he is thrown up against it high in the Andes. And what this bizarre Pizarro is really looking for is the numinous, the sense of overpowering awe which results when the human comes into contact with some aspect of the divine.
This uprooted European thinks he may have found it in the religion of the Incas, and its human embodiment - the Inca, the leader of this strange, new civilisation. The title-holder at the point of Pizarro’s arrival is one Atahuallpa, and Schaffer has his Pizarro immediately fascinated by him. The human knot that ties this play together is the strange bonding the two men quickly form. Like Pizarro himself, Atahuallpa was an illegitimate child who had to defeat his half-brother in a bloody civil war to gain his throne. (The half-sibling was killed in the war, and Schaffer’s Spanish eventually execute Atahuallpa on dubious charges of murder, a historically accurate if plot-twisted account.) Pizarro, who grew up always feeling inferior because of his own bastard status, immediately connects with this charismatic Andean usurper. More importantly, he deeply senses the power of this indigenous religion and the man revered as the son of one of its main god.
The play moves from this point to face off with a number of intriguing themes. However, it ultimately fails to give a clinching argument or even satisfactory solution to them. Also, the play feels very much like an impressive early work by a playwright who had not quite mastered his craft. The script is filled with a number of powerful, well-wrought speeches, but they all too often deflect from the dramatic action or seem to be uncomfortably wedged into the scenes.
Also, this play, despite its huge cast, offers only a few characters with anything like full dimensions. Pizarro is, obviously, one of them, as is the Inca. The other two are the same character seen at different life stages: Martin, encountered both as an enthusiastic youth who joins the expedition with dreams of discovering and exploiting new worlds and also as an old man, totally disillusioned with his former hero, Pizarro, and the whole Spanish enterprise in South America. It is this elder Martin who serves as the play’s narrator - which also, of course, makes him our moral compass on the events covered. (Another dramatic flaw here: Martin at times seems to know a lot about scenes and internal changes that he could not really witness.)
This heady brew of psycho-religious juices was brought to local audiences back in late July under the auspices of World-in-Theatre. Co-directors Chris Cheers and Sonny Lim made an excellent choice right up top in selecting their venue for this production: the Substation Garden. The outdoor setting, framed and interposed by trees and attended by the soft chorus of nature’s nocturnal sounds, lent the production an air of authenticity that an enclosed stage could only match with a huge, sumptuous and expensive set.
They also made wise decisions with their raggedy, minimalist costumes and the infusion of music with a heavy nod towards drums. Choreography by Elizabeth de Roza was also a fine element here, though the abilities of the dancers were very mixed.
Admittedly, the energy brought to the production by just about everyone was obvious, but energy does not always equal solid performances, and this is where the WIT production sagged a bit. The cast itself was rather mixed in acting talents, but uniformly ardent and lively.
The most solid performances came from Neelam Chugh as Martin, the play’s narrator, Ferlin Jayatissa as a much older Martin recounting events, and Subramaniam V as Atahuallpa. With fierce eyes focused on a world he first controls, then is unable to comprehend, Subramaniam V looks every inch the Inca god-king. His poised presence, even in the face of impending death, fit the part beautifully as well; this fellow delivered a performance worthy of his regal demeanour.
Sad to say, the real weak spot in this show was right there at the centre, in Phillip Marcelo’s Pizarro. Marcelo had the right look for a Conquistador well past his prime, drawing on the last dregs of ambition and greed to carry out a daunting assignment. The actor’s crazed, trail-worn appearance and punchy movements fit this interpretation well.
Unfortunately, this actor’s weakest tool was his voice. This was unfortunate indeed, as Pizarro commands a large chunk of text, and has the most powerful and lyrical speeches. But Marcelo had problems with something as basic as enunciation and as crucial as capturing the right tone. Still on the evening of the last performance, Pizarro’s most important speeches came off more as rants, his moments of quiet reflection as asides with many words lost somewhere in the night breezes.
The smaller roles were handled with varying degrees of competence. Sonny Lim’s Hernando de Soto, Pizarro’s second-in-command, may have been somewhat one-dimensional, but the fault there lies with the playwright, not the actor. Lim gave everything that could be expected of him to make the character credible and sympathetic, displaying fine skills throughout.
R. Chandran delivered a scowling, vigorous performance as the chaplain, infusing the whole with energy. His character, too, was one-dimensional, but he did serve up the obsessive religious intolerant Schaffer sculpted here.
Also, it may sound contradictory to pin any blame for the production’s weakness on two of the better performers, but the two Martins could have strengthened this show by plumbing more into the depths of their characters. If for instance, Neelam Chugh’s had shown us even more of the development of disilluion or if Ferlin Jayatissa had unleashed more of that pain disillusion brings as it scours all faith from a man trapped in darkness at the end of his life, this Royal Hunt could have been a stronger show.
Yet, for all that, I found this production rather impressive. Energy never lagged over more than two intense hours, and there was enough acting talent, sound effects and directorial imagination to bring out boldly some key aspects of Schaffer’s bitter brew of a script. All successful theatre is a combination of craft and magic. If the World-in-Theatre production of Royal Hunt was a bit spotty in its craft, it was quite strong in its capture of magic, a most illusive force. For that, they are to be applauded, with much appreciation for bringing this difficult work to Singapore.
A good month after Royal Hunt chased through here, John Peilmeier’s powerful drama, Agnes of God, played a weekend indoors at The Substation’s Guinness Theatre. There is a certain historical irony in Agnes following so closely on the heels of a Shaffer play. You see, when this play first opened back in 1980, not a few commentators downgraded its achievement by arguing that it was simply too derivative of Shaffer’s powerful Equus, which had snatched up a passel of major theatre awards just four years earlier.
But now that almost a quarter-century has passed, we can judge Agnes in a less harsh light. In this light, it is clear that Pielmeier‘s work, while less of a bang-up drama than Equus, is actually a more intellectually rigorous play, with characters of greater depth, breadth and moral heft. Its dealing with the modern religious question is certainly more successful than either that work or Royal Hunt of the Sun.
The titular Agnes is a young nun accused of murdering the newborn child she has just delivered. Having managed to conceal her pregnancy until she delivered (those habits can really hide a lot, believe me), she may have strangled the infant with its own umbilical cord, then tried to jam the tiny corpse into a wastepaper basket. Hardly the stuff of budding sainthood.
But did she do it? And if not, whodunnit? Dr. Martha Livingstone is a psychiatrist assigned by the court to determine whether the young religious is even competent to stand trial. (Now you see the Equus parallels.) The third side of this tense triangle is Mother Miriam Ruth, Mother Superior of the convent where Agnes was serving and where the crime, whosever crime it was, transpired.
The play may start off like a murder mystery with an interesting premise, but Pielmeier had his eyes on a more intriguing bounty when he wrote Agnes of God. In fact, at play’s end, we still don’t know who the infant’s father is, and the actual identity of the murderer seems strangely anti-climatic, a mere detail of the larger story.
The prime focus of this piece is the three different spiritual journeys the trio of characters take. At the end of those journeys, they may all be looking towards the same thing, but from very diverse angles.
Dr Livingstone starts out her journey from the craggy rock of righteous agnosticism. We soon learn that Dr Livingstone is a lapsed Catholic, having precociously lost her faith before she was even in high school. Moreover, now the doctor is an embittered and dedicated adversary of the Church she was belonged to.
The major stations along her road to agnosticism were the loss of a lovely grade school friend, made more painful by a nun’s incredibly myopic explanation of this child’s death; and her own sister’s early death in the convent. This sister’s death was partially caused by the refusal of her superiors to provide medical attention to the young nun. Livingstone now wants revenge on the seemingly capricious God she does not even believe in.
Mother Miriam’s journey coursed through a period of marriage, motherhood and the late call of a religous vocation. Having been out in the ‘real world’, she has now turned to the cloistered life of this contemplative order of nuns. But her religious devotion is tempered by her experiences out there in the real world. This Mother Superior does not play so superior: she readily admits that she does not have answers to some of her own most troubling questions about God and human fates, let alone Dr Livingstone’s.
Sister Agnes is a different creature altogether. Having entered the convent quite young, she is still more a child than a young woman. In fact, there is an almost pre-lapsarian innocence about this woman-child whose sense of the numinous is indelibly mixed with elements snatched out of nightmares.
Agnes is in fact a bundle of contradictions that all somehow add up to make a frightening sense. At times the young sister seems to be bathed in transcendental joy, but she believes that everyone is unhappy. Agnes also believes that God hates fat people and that being fat is a sin. This hysterical heresy is, obviously, an unconscious revulsion at her own pregnancy.
This pregnancy and the death of the newborn child issues in other strange visions, beliefs and actions. For instance, Agnes also is convinced one of her fellow nuns has fed her glass. Possessed of an angelic voice, she sang a lot more during her conception and pregnancy, though she will immediately break off her singing when someone is around to admire it.
As we move along we find other sources of Agnes’ many torments. Her own mother was, like Agnes, an unwed mother. Also like her mother, Agnes suffers frightening headaches. Her mother saw angels when she had them. Agnes recognises devils during her headaches - though these may be angels in disguise.
Agnes is so good, so gifted, so innocent, she instills an urgency to save her in the other two characters. This then becomes a source of dramatic conflict, as Dr. Martha and Mother Miriam are involved in a kind of struggle to see who can bestow the better forgiveness upon this young nun. Dr Martha’s, of course, comes from the balms of psychiatry, Mother Miriam’s from the founts of religious faith.
Ultimately, Agnes’ tortured innocence is too much for this world; is, indeed, a kind of threat to this world. What starts off as a murder mystery ends as a tragedy. But it is a Christian tragedy, that strange hybrid in which the harsh sting of irreparable loss is softened by the hope of final redemption.
This play is not a major, ground-shaking document, as the theological inquiries it takes up are hardly of Dostoyevskian dimensions. Pielmeier’s inquiry is much more limited and, in a sense, commendably honest in its limits. At its conclusion, Agnes is sacrificed, but her sacrifice brings a kind of salvation to both Martha Livingstone and Mother Miriam Ruth. Early on, the Mother Superior (whom we come to discover is Agnes’ aunt, given guardianship over the girl upon her own sister’s death) believes that Agnes was touched by God. By the end both of the older women feel that they, too, have been lightly brushed by God, simply by having come into close contact with Agnes. The numinous seeps through, even in dark moments.
Both the mother superior and the psychiatrist are left with most of the questions they began with. But as the lights come down, they come to understand that there are some questions that simply can not be answered this side of heaven’s door and they must be accepted as such.
The luna-id handling of this piece was of the standard one has come to expect from this strong company. Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall deals commendably with the material, infusing it with the right blend of gravitas, tension, humour, and mystery. She kept directorial flourishes at a minimum, concentrating our attention on the characters and the text. As the company Artistic Director, Christian Huber said in his programme message, the show was “done with simplicity and honesty”.
Sebastian Zeng’s spare set had a similar effect, stressing simplicity and honesty while still suggesting that special aura of a convent where simplicity masks complexity.
The strong cast was the other key element in the success of this show. Christian Sergeant, who first tackled the role of Martha Livingstone here back in 1994, reprises the part convincingly. Sergeant’s strategy has the doctor proceeding cautiously at first. It is not a gruff, thoroughly assured Dr Livingstone we first meet, but a solid professional who already shows outwardly some of the doubts that will gnaw through her for the rest of the play until they reveal the inner core of this deeply complex woman.
As she proceeds, Sergeant skilfully sheds layer after layer of armour, finally revealing a human being in need of something larger than herself, larger than what this mere earth can offer. At the moments where the script calls on Dr. Livingstone to reach most deeply within herself, Sergeant was at her strongest, sending chills down the spine of this critical observer.
Those who would like to argue that Karen Tan is currently Singapore’s best actress will get ammunition for their cause with her solid performance here. Tan’s Mother Miriam exhibited strength where possible and doubts where permissible. She struck the right notes throughout, making this challenging character wholly sympathetic, the moral anchor to the piece as well as a woman quite deserving of our pity.
Newcomer Grace Wan acquitted herself well in the key role of Agnes. Wan brought a saint-like demeanour to the role, but she cut that saintliness convincingly with occasional sharp remarks, grimaces suggesting malice, and a reticence suggesting hidden shame more than modesty. She also brought an exceptional singing talent to this role. In fact, for most of the evening, I thought I was listening to an excellent recording of church hymns; she was that good. Perhaps the best praise we can give Wan’s performance is that she pretty much held her own with Karen Tan and Christina Sergeant at the top of their forms. Not at all bad for a first time out on the professional stage.
The third show in the last quarter to take up a similar set of themes was an eccentric double-bill at Action Theatre, Waterloo Stories. This show paired a devised piece “conceptualised, written and devised in collaboration with actors” by Lee Chee Keng with a mildly engaging playlet written by local actor-director-dramatist Jonathan Lim. Lee Chee Keng’s Treading Water strikes some thematic cords that later echo in Lim’s piece, People Say Got Ghost. It would be unfair to argue that this show proves conclusively the superiority of scripted plays over devised works, but it certainly does not strengthen the devised case a bit.
In Treading Water, Lee threw a number of disparate elements into the pot and stirred, but they never came together as a whole. We had Buddhist temple rituals, Chinese street opera, a discussion between ‘foreign-talent’ masseuses who often provide clients with the whole job. As Sheridan Morley might say, what was the piece about? Oh, about 35 minutes. The dialogues that were mildly interesting eventually went on much too long and/or finally led nowhere while others were completely inconsequential, and the whole piece was festooned with odd bits of stage business that often seemed inconsequential or confusing.
All too frequently I had the feeling I was watching a few actresses of varying talents going through exercises and that we were witnessing not even a late rehearsal, but an early rehearsal for some show much further than the road.
Jonathan Lim’s play redeemed the evening somewhat. Got Ghost has an interesting premise which it followed and delivered in a highly competent, admirably written manner.
The play is about a small local theatre company rehearsing a play where they deal with Waterloo Street and the environs. This play is set in the future when the National library on Stamford Road, still extant, has been razed to make way for the new SMU.
Lim, who has demonstrated his ample comic talents often, brings them out again here, as both actor and playwright. The piece contains a number of good in-jokes about life in the theatre (“He’s a director; he only sees what he wants to see.”) and also offers a few good if lightweight insights about relationships in the world of theatre.
But Lim also works in some interesting whiffs of the numinous. For instance, he manages to morph an apparation of woman who appears in the theatre during rehearsals with the Madonna at a nearby Catholic church that fascinated him when he was a schoolboy.
Finally, Lim’s short play sets up the reunion of two wandering souls in a nice, touching moment. This play was also better acted than its double-bill partner, with Lim and an appropriately haunting Amy Cheng leading the way. Also quite effective here was Leow Puay Tin while Edward Choy contributed a nice balance to Lim’s more volatile actor in the piece.
This play would have been a good curtain raiser for a stronger closing piece. As it worked out, People Say Got Ghost was the only real reason for coming to see these Waterloo Stories.