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Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

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Groping Towards the Godly
Page 2

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.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003


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  Other Extra Media article in this Issue

Horror Raya - Atomic Jaya
By Richard Lord.

Related Links

Peter Shaffer profile
External link.

Another Peter Shaffer profile
External link to the BBC.

Review of the premiere of Royal Hunt of the Sun
External link to the Guardian.

Peter Shaffer as Transcendent Antithesis
External link.

John Pielmeier profile
External link.

Agnes of God script
External link.

Review of Agnes of God
External link to the Flying Inkpot.

Action Theatre
External link.

Review of Waterloo Stories
External link to Happening.com.sg.


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