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The Chapel Perilous

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, by Dorothy Hewett, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 25 April -27 May.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS is a play by Dorothy Hewett written in 1972.

Dorothy Hewett was born in 1923, in the landscape of the wheat fields of Western Australia. She was home schooled until her mid teenage years when she went to Perth to an Anglican school. It was when she arrived there that Dorothy began to realise that she would be, necessarily, on a lone personal quest for her individuality. In pursuit of her self-realisation the value systems of the world around her would be her nemesis, her combatant. Rebel, atheist, sexualist, iconoclast, Communist, feminist, novelist, playwright and poet – all these things, especially the poet, put her at odds with the cultural ‘wasteland’ of her era.

Writing for the theatre as a poet in epic style, in form impressed from the European avant-garde (the Symbolists, Wedekind, Brecht and others), her works were liberated, unburdened by the dominant rules of naturalism and were, mostly, a confronting conundrum for the Australian audience’s of the 1970’s. Even in time beyond – really, until THE MAN FROM MUKINUPIN (1979) – Ms Hewett was a, relative, persona non grata to/for audiences. It was just not her exploration of form, however, – some would say a female form – that isolated her, it was also her content: the world as experienced by a woman and told with a free-wheeling open-hearted fierceness, joy and puzzlement that blind sighted the audiences to embracing her. For, Ms Hewett could not be anything but honest. And honesty about the female ‘functions’, instincts, needs and wants were subjects of exposure that good manners and social convention, dictated by Church, School and State, in the rigour of censorship handed down by a rigorous patriarchy had prevented that from being publicly (theatrically) discussed. As revealed in the time scape of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, from the early ’30’s through to the ’60’s (at least) Sally Banner lives in an Australia that was deeply, deeply ‘proper’/conservative. The woman/poet Dorothy Hewett could be mad, bad and dangerous to the fabric of society, it seemed.

Her first play THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME (1967) was, mostly, a social realist melodrama set in the ‘lower depths’ of the working class of Redfern, but was mixed with a ‘poetical chorus’ of women, which in the experience/exposure of the general Australian theatre audiences used to the well-made play was an alien and derailing experience. This play dealt with the working class struggle within an ordinary family for social justice, revealing its poverty and alcoholic heritage in a mire of overt sexuality and post-World War II social/political disorder – plus, poetry spoken by the ‘dregs’ of the city! The cultural cringe was severe. It was ‘proper’ and perhaps acceptable to read of these sort of things in novels, in the privacy of one’s own head/home, but in the theatre, surrounded by other people, it could be, was, awkward.? “Entertain us, please – none of that mirror up to life stuff.” The response to the play was critical.

The next play was THE CHAPEL PERILOUS. Ms Hewett, being no slouch in her own literature reading and influence, gives the play its shape from the inspiration of Sir Thomas Malory’s LE MORTE D’ARTHUR (1485) focused not on Knight: Sir Gwain of olde, but on Sally Banner of now, and her quest, her struggles, to find the ‘grail’, that will permit her to be true, to release herself as a positive individual influence on the world. The frankness of the episodes in Sally’s journey and the powerful sexual independence of the character was a confrontation in its time, possibly is still, today. The language was realistic and scarifying for its society, and possibly, still is, today.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS comes with a reputation for being ‘awkward’, in its structure with sudden flights into various ‘form’, let alone its content. I have seen this play in several incarnations and it has always appeared to be a ‘mess’ of a play, but Ms Licciardello, at the New Theatre, has found a way to tell it that has a lucidity and a unification of the forms to its social/narrative purposes. Her intellectual conceptualisation as to the play’s intent and method has harnessed Ms Hewett’s work, with elisions and adaptations, for ease. Whether we are seeing all of Ms Hewett’s artistic courage and vision on stage in this production is another thing altogether.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, is possibly the most auto-biographical play that Ms Hewett wrote. Though, all of the works resonate with her life experiences and personality – bravado. If one reads her auto-biography WILD CARD, published in 1980, one can appreciate the gifts of the writer in her inventive, imaginative and technical adventurism in writing from her life for the theatre.

This production of the play has pared down (musically and visually) what some have called ‘a mess’, ‘awkward’, to create a clear theatrical path of co-hesive storytelling – this is the strength of Ms Licciardello’s vision. Although, I felt that the musical element of the play had not been given the attention it should have. The choral work under prepared or, under powered, not given sufficient attention to performance clarity and dramaturgical intention (Musical Direction, by Alexander Lee-Rekers). The Set Design, by Kyle Jonsson is functionally inventive, dark and primitive in its statements (an altar of sacrifice, in an arena scape) encouraging a Lighting Design from Martin Kinnane that glows in yellows and oranges, and contrasting arid blues, in teeming haze, too, darkly. The Costume Design, by Courtney Westbrook, creates with flair the passing of eras/time with aesthetic clarity and clever changes. Clemence Williams, too, has created a diverse and apt Sound Design to register, signal, the changes of mood with skill.

A lot of the persona of this play, as written by Ms Hewett, are satiric caricatures, (in this production of nine actors called the Ensemble: Courtney Bell, Jasper Garner-Gore, Madeline Osborn and James Wright) representing distilled core/extremities of elements of the mainstream culture – those elements challenged by Sally Banner. This company of actors, and this should include Meg Clarke, as Sister Rosa, Brett Heath as Cannon, and especially Alison Chambers as Mother and Headmistress, led by Ms Licciardello, do not trust that the ‘satire’ has been written in, and tend to ‘gild the lilly’ by aggressively playing the writing without really investigating the people they are lambasting/representing with any backstory truths. The satire is built in, and there is no need to play it. Instead, I thought, as I watched, just play the truth. Simple. Honest. Real interactions (and certainly in this production where the Symbolist Masks etc have been removed) are what surfaces as the acting mode necessary for this production to score best. For the actors to present a bunch of mixed believers in the conventions of their society as normal, as natural as anyone else – we, certainly, see enough examples of this extremity played out regularly on our daily news bulletins by real people, passionate believers in their point-of-view, to not need the actor/satirists to exaggerate them. It was a point underlined in the Trump-‘sketch’ in last year’s Wharf Revue, BACK TO BITE YOU, where simply screening Donald Trump speeches/interviews without comment was satiric enough!

The best performance in this production of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, comes from Tom Matthews, who in playing representations of all four of Sally’s love interests: Michael, Thomas, David and Saul, ‘plays’ with a naturalistic power (Stanislavskian prepared truth) that exposes at the same time, both, the satiric observations and the human failings of these men of those eras with, what appears to be, careful selection and restraint. Ms Clarke does the same with her Judith (though not her nun) – Sally’s first passion – her performance grounds the scenes with Sally with comprehensible realities. Mr Heath, also, demonstrates glimmers of knowledge of the human dilemmas of the Father’s tasks, too (though a trifle wooden) but not with, as I have mentioned, his overstated Cannon.

Julia Christensen, carrying the immense role (banner) of Sally Banner, gives us a spine to the story. She is obviously equipped with the intelligence to approach the challenge of the writing and has an enormous reservoir of emotional life to deliver it. However, Ms Christensen’s performance struggles with harnessing both her objective understanding of Sally’s function in the play with her personal (subjective) emotional identification to Sally’s journey, and with what Dorothy Hewett is revealing, as author, of herself.

At the performance I watched, the personalisation, the ownership, of Sally Banner by Ms Christensen, overwhelmed her artistry, and prevented her from creating a character that is the Sally Banner written by Ms Hewett, and it seemed that I was witnessing a live (improvised) personal response to the material. There was little real interaction with her other actors – she played, mostly, it seemed, within a pre-conceived arc, generating the performance independently of the other actor’s offers, all from her own passionate identification, and demonstrated  no real restraint in her erupting choices to have us, help us, pierce to the dramaturgical functions of the character and the writing, sufficiently, for our responding empathy.

All this is said with an admiration and sense of expectancy of better work from this artist, for I have seen her potential in other places. Ms Christensen’s performance is Okay but not what I suspect it could be. For instance, I kept reading her offers of her Sally with a ‘thrusting’ head used for emphasis, from phrase to phrase, to be accumulatively, in appearance, an emotional habit of the actor rather than the actor’s craft CHOICE to reveal Sally. The last work I have seen from Ms Christensen was in A PERIOD PIECE – a satiric piece, and the habits of her performance work – essentially, a lack of craft RESTRAINT to her impulses – were, similarly present in that performance. I had seen her, as well, in another comic piece called AN INSPECTION – and, as this was my first viewing of her gifts, it appeared very arresting. The two new viewings since have given me the same actorly habits as the major offer. It is interesting to note that Ms Licciardello also Directed A PERIOD PIECE with their Company: GLITTERBOMB. They seem to be supporting muses for each other’s work.

I left the New Theatre with a growing admiration of the potential of Ms Licciardello – there is conceptual intelligence and staging skill (although, some of the setting of scenes on the downstage floor limited the viewing for the audience sitting in the back half of the theatre). Her production of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS reveals the courage and, sadly, relevance of Ms Hewett’s work. Sally’s need to define herself necessarily by the relationships that she has with men – her ‘neediness’,  her search for ‘love’ and mistaking sex as the instrument to find it, rings out as a dominant chord of ‘tragedy’, as does the final moment in the play where Sally, finally, gives in to the demands of the world about her and bows to their command. Ms Hewett’s Sally fails in the end, perhaps, because her ‘grail’ is undefined. How relevant is that to the contemporary woman in the world of 2017?  However, I look forward to Ms Licciardello growing a gift for guiding her actors more accurately, and less indulgently, with more discipline, to reveal not only the ‘What’ but the ‘How’ of the writer’s intentions (or, in this production of her adaptation’s needs).

Dorothy Hewett is a trailblazer in the ambition of her playwrighting and this production ought to remind people of her vision and potency. It brings the historic Australian female playwright’s voice to attention and one hopes that we see other productions of her work, ‘messy’, ‘awkward’, though they appear to be. THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY (1976) for instance – almost, completely neglected. Ms Licciardello and Ms Christensen presented a work called, A PERIOD PIECE, at Old 505 Theatre, recently, focusing on the female ‘period’. Maybe, they will tackle Ms Hewett’s BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY (1972) where an infamous ‘flow’ stunned audiences of the time. Still may – will?!!

For audience interested in Australian playwrighting, in the lost female voice of our Australian theatre repertoire (Alma de Groen, another: RIVERS OF CHINA; THE WOMAN AT HE WINDOW), I can, with some small reservations, recommend that you go see this work, at the New Theatre.

Says Sally, proudly early in the play: ‘Queen Elizabeth, Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Joan of Arc, Boadicea, Grace Darling, Elizabeth Frye, Helen Keller, Daisy Bates, Sally Banner’.

Let’s add Dorothy Hewett, to that list.

P.S. It was fascinating/exciting, for me, to see Director/theatre activist Aarne Neeme, at the New Theatre, at the Opening performance, as it was he who encouraged Dorothy to write this play and who Directed the first production of the play at the New Fortune Theatre, in Perth in January, 1971, with a cast of actors of greater size. History in motion. History flowing about us, mostly, unperceived.

N.B. It has been a week of retrieval of the Australian repertoire from the Independent Theatre in the Sydney scene with THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, by Dorothy Hewett and DOWN AN ALLEY WITH CATS, by Warwick Moss. A good week, then.