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her holiness | Bakehouse Theatre Company
Written by Brett Casben   
Monday, 02 June 2008 10:32
her holiness | Bakehouse Theatre CompanyHow many angels could sit on the head of a pin was a matter that was given serious consideration by Papal clerics at the time of Galileo. By all accounts they have given up the quest in favour of more pressing issues. Other matters that seem to have gone on the back burner, at least according to playwrights Justin Fleming and Melvyn Morrow include the canonisation of saints or at least that of Mother Mary McKillop.

Australia is currently without a Saint whereas most countries can lay claim to at least one or two and some have quite a cluster. Many of those of the Catholic faith reckon we’re in line for one of our own and apparently the writers of ‘her holiness’ concur. It is a play that examines the life, the love and the faith of Mother Mary McKillop and her postulation into Sainthood.

It is a confronting view of Roman Catholicism written from an interesting perspective. Actually it is written from several perspectives which neatly dovetail into a very entertaining and moving piece of drama.

The law is always a fascinating area of interest and trials are by far the most exciting of its aspects at least for the lay observer. They hold the very essence of drama with our fascination with ‘Did they do it and why?’ In this it follows its somewhat less celebrated cousin in science where the proposition is put, examined and either proved or debunked.

This is a joint offering by Fleming and Morrow and the mark of each is apparent in the writing. It essentially covers a trial, the trial of Mother Mary McKillop both during her life and now in death.

The structure of the play seems to carry the hallmark of Fleming. It exhibits a strong analytical line in the deconstruction of the proposition that was much in evidence in his play ‘Burnt Piano’ recently presented at the Ensemble.

Here again there is seen an orbital construct opening with the spiritual declaration from Mother Mary and concluding with the profession of a spiritual exchange advanced by Anna Detweiller. Both parts are played with great sensitivity and defined characterisation by Bernadette Ryan. Detweiller is the rather feisty niece of a German bishop personally acquainted with the incumbent Pope Benedict played by Alan Dearth. In his portrayal Dearth leaves aside both accent and the Germanic typology that often mar such character interpretations and concentrates on delivering a sympathetic, astute and very human Pontiff. His performance as both Pope Benedict and Pope Pious IX as an alert, if enfeebled Pope, are each very clearly etched.

Within this orbit the writers explore the circumstances surrounding the formation of McKillop’s order The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and the subsequent rift that resulted in her excommunication by Bishop Sheil (later rescinded) played by Tony Stock who later also takes the role of Bishop Quinn.

It explores the relationship between herself and her original advocate, Fr Tenison Woods that saw an irrevocable split between them. In this production James Lugton presents him as a vacillating pawn in the Church hierarchy. This historic background is dovetailed into a latter day argument between Pope Benedict and Detweiller examining amongst other things the nature of Sainthood. ‘Halos don’t just drop down like tops onto bottles’, His Holiness declares.

Ultimately the story is about relative time scales between this world and the next. ‘Christ would make a lousy comedian,’ Benedict declares in response to Dettweiller’s chastening over the delay in confirmation of McKillop’s canonization. ‘That coming from a German?’ retorts Detweiller.

There is no shortage of one-liners throughout the play as one might expect from one who launched The Mavis Bramston Show. Morrow has a very firm handle on the set up and pay off evident in these exchanges. The writing is terse and witty with several running gags including those at the expense of the Jesuits. The Men in Black however are shown as the voice of reason when the Church bureaucracy gets ensnared in its procedure at the cost of its practice.

The sheer breadth of canvas undertaken by the work militates frugality in terms of the story line. Much of what bedevilled McKillop in her work is dealt with in scant episodes. The extent of the pain and anguish suffered by this early Australian philanthropist and missionary is largely left to the imagination.

Most biographical accounts suggest McKillop suffered rheumatism through poor circulation that eventually resulted in a partially paralysing stroke in her later years. Interestingly it is suggested in the play that the cramping was associated with period pain. The play also trespasses on events that she steadfastly refused to comment on, those that led to the bitter falling out between herself and Tenison Woods. That final confrontation provides the climax to the first act and it certainly works dramatically whatever the truth might be.

The staging of the play under the direction of Suzanne Millar brings the dramatic tension of the work to a very satisfying pitch with several conventions being used to good effect. Setting antagonists laterally, confronting the audience, serves to sharpen the grip on their involvement in both interrogation and contention, denying them the luxury of that of mere observers.

Millar is also credited with set design and she uses the adaptable space of the Seymour downstage to make a powerful statement in elevation and alienation. Dramatic timber uprights are reminders of both cathedral and crucifix. The draped gossamer surround brings a sense of conspiracy as the figures populating the work drift in and out.

Martin Kinnane has designed a complementary lighting format that defines spaces within spaces as the plot shares the stage between spareness and opulence. As the rapidly deteriorating Tenison Woods pitches towards mental derangement the device of lateral confrontation with the audience is dramatically reversed and the audience is in the spotlight as the shadows of his crazed imagination infect him.

The music composition and sound design by George Cartledge graced the entire production in a glorious combination of musical accompaniment that sweeps the work magically through the multiple dimensions of its telling. It crafts an elegy of gentle humour and Renaissance liturgy that weaves throughout.

The production has a strong supporting cast which includes Cat Martin as Sr Monica, Megan Thomas as Sr Angela, Katherine Shearer as Sr Francis Xavier, Ben Wood as Mgr Kinsella, Fr Joseph Tappeiner, Cardinal Moran and Mgr Kirby, Alisa Hawkins as Joanna Barr-Smith and Matt Tredinnick as Doctor Frazer and Bishop Reynolds .

The validity or otherwise of the postulation to Sainthood of Mary McKillop is a matter for the Holy Roman See and is caught up in what is undoubtedly the world’s most pedantic mechanism of legal precedent. As Benedict observes, ‘It is my place to see that things don’t change, … events come and go but rarely have anything to do with theology … here we think long term.’

‘her holiness’ presents us with something quite apart from this debate. It unmistakably identifies a person who in this country attained the most rigorous of all the so called Socratic standards, one worthy of teaching by example. Regardless of gender, citizenship or faith all people would do well to commemorate her in their hearts. Mary McKillop was one in a millennium.


Bakehouse Theatre Company presents
her holiness
by Justin Fleming and Melvin Morrow

Venue: Seymour Centre Downstairs
Evening performances: 2,4,5,6,7,12 and 14 June 8pm
Wed 3 June 6.30pm
Tickets: $27 / $17 concession.
Bookings: 9351 7940 or www.seymour.usyd.edu.au
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