Godspell

Venue: The Drama Barn
Runs: 14th June – 17th June
Director: Anna Czornyj
Producers: Florence-Anne Stratton, Beth Eustace
Musical Director: Tim Newberry
Rating: ***

Anna Czonyj’s production of Swartz and Tebelak’s Godspell was an entertaining but mixed bag. The classic theme for this 1970s musical, currently in a Broadway rerun, is a fun-loving born-again romp, proclaiming the Word while clad in tie-dye and dungarees. In a brave and interesting move Czonyj tried to avoid what she described as the “happy-clappy” ambience towards a darker, deeper investigation of the Gospel according to Matthew, from which the musical draws its narrative string of parables.

And as the show begins without warning, as if the presence of an audience is completely incidental, there seems to be some promise for this Cimmerian interpretation. Once the cast have quietly processed in, the first words spoken are of Plato’s Trial of Socrates, cleverly appropriate given the prison setting. Each actor chimes in with axioms of great philosophers, until the room descends into incomprehensible babble, cut through only by the entrance of Jesus (Alistair Kerr). It is a strong start, with a strong message.

But this is mitigated somewhat by the rather simplistic approach to the script, as the show swiftly becomes a relentless march through the parables, with the chorus resembling a reluctant Sunday school class rather than inmates. Though at first establishing the individual definition of each of the chorus members, most of them fall to the temptation of playing the generic recalcitrant child. Ryan Hall especially, failed to give as much nuance to his John/Judas as he could have done, with a superficial and at times childish characterisation. It is a difficult role to play, but the fact that his most convincing character was a goat is rather telling.

Yet there are moments of brilliance too. A few well executed elements of physical theatre – a jail, some puppets – work excellently to tell the story and keep us visually stimulated. A sudden change of blocking leaves Jesus in one corner, the chorus gathered in the other, powerfully framing and lending presence to Kerr. It was only so that he could play a game of charades with them, but it was at that moment I began to believe he was playing the Son of God.

And the most interesting story that unfolds throughout the piece is that of Jesus the man. His pain, his frustration, and his doubt when faced with mankind’s incorrigible nature are ever-present in the subtext, and are deftly handled by Kerr. At one point he says softly “what little faith you have”, and I really felt his despair. This narrative would have climaxed in the betrayal and crucifixion, were it not for some messy staging and a curious omittance of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – though whether the blame for this lies with Czornyj or with Swartz and Tebelak I do not know.
The chorus were not particularly strong individually, partially due to first-night nerves. However, Edith Kirkwood’s character and its development seemed well considered, and Emma Mansfield’s voice could not be faulted throughout. As an ensemble they help Kerr shoulder the burden of carrying the two-hour musical, producing a really fantastic sound in complex harmonies.

For the production to work it required the cast to win us over. It was clear even the charitable first night audience was not fully on board, with some less-than-innocent titters at an unintended innuendo. But despite an awkward, forced bout of audience participation, by the second act I felt we had accepted the childlike approach and were happy to suspend our disbelief, which was a definite achievement.

A few important contradictions and inconsistencies in the direction and performance of this production prevented it from plumbing the obsidian depths it intended to. It made me smile, and it made me think, but not always for the right reasons.

4 comments

  1. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not in the script of Godspell :)

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  2. Appalling review. Not only is it contradictory and pretentious, but you found faults where there were none. The script-change suggestion… Mate, they’re performing what they’ve got at hand. Don’t be a muppet.

    I saw this Thursday night – it wasn’t my cup of tea, I’ll happily admit that, but it was nevertheless quite extraordinary. Don’t go in expecting a plot – there really isn’t too much of one. It’s like a series of parables, stories, and sketches, and each one is broken up interestingly into differing experimental pieces of theatre.

    This review, overally, completely fails. It doesn’t mention half the things I would have mentioned. I’d have faulted the production for its first-night nerves, with mistakes coming from both the band and the actors, which led to some slightly shaky singing at times. The pace of the first act also left something to be desired. However, there were moments of absolute brilliance. Spears’ song was beautiful. The crucifixion was heart-wrending. Kerr’s and Hall’s double number in the first act was a highlight of the show for me – comic genius. Your summation of Hall is not only rude, but also completely wrong. It’s not even an opinion. You’ve misunderstood his required energy for childishness, and forgotten that he comes on stage almost bawling his eyes out in the final scene.

    My word. There you go, Nouse, a more accurate review in a comment than this piece of turd written above. And seriously, that’s got to be the word of the day: ‘Cimmerian’. Jesus.

    It’s also not Jesus who cuts through the opening babble, but John the Baptist. Again, nice one.

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  3. Anon: fancy actually doing the review yourself? Did you volunteer to do it? If you think you’re better than wor Josh then why not make yourself known to the Muse editors? If you think you’re so good then why not write for Nouse? Not a difficult task bro.

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  4. @Anon

    Thank you for correcting me about the opening sequence, though I think my point about the effective direction in that scene still stands despite this mistake.

    I quite clearly avoided using the idea about Jesus’ last words on the cross as a criticism of the director. As the first comment above confirms, they are not in the script, and so that sentence may be used only as a criticism of Swartz and Tebelak. You misunderstood my point, which is actually quite positive: their intuitive interpretation of Jesus and his frustration in Godspell matches what is actually written in the Bible.

    As far as the “required energy for childishness” goes, I feel I might be missing something here. I did not see the reason for childishness, when the setting was a prison and the expressed intention of the director was for a more mature interpretation. Is there a reason for it you can see?

    ‘Cimmerian’ was completely appropriate in the context, as its etymology stems from the documentation by Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus, of the Kimmerian people that invaded what is now Iraq on a campaign in the direction of Jerusalem. ‘Cimmerian’ is a rough synonym for ‘dark’ in the sense of ‘a dark interpretation of the script’. Don’t worry though, erudition is easily mistaken for pretension when approached from a position of ignorance.

    I hope the next “turd” you pass does not cause you so much pain.

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