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