The performance takes places in a space filled with toys, costumes, microphones and sound equipment. There is cardboard on the walls and an old man (Peter Snow) sits in a chair sleeping, while four others (Amelia Best, Philip McInnes, Luke Ryan and Katherine Tonkin) try to wake him, and failing that, begin to tell each other stories from the Old Testament. We soon discover that the old man is Yahweh (God) and that the others come to represent either believers in Yahweh or those whose stories are told in the Old Testament.
This simple conceit allows the performers to use the various “found” objects strewn across the stage to tell their story in the way that they choose. In the story of Abraham, Philip McInnes uses a punching glove to represent Yahweh, and as he punches the other performers, Abraham goes about fulfilling his destiny and the will of God. Job (Luke Ryan) is a stand-up comic recounting his story as a failed comedy routine, while the story of Jacob and Esau enacted by a Ken Doll and Willy (1984 Australian Mascot to the Los Angeles Olympics) and voiced by Amelia Best is re-imagined as a Play School-like fable. These stories continue to unfold, and at their best the objects the performers use, come to represent the nature of the characters within each story (e.g. Samson being represented as a T-Rex), but at their worst the objects become mere ciphers for performance ideas that don’t always translate (as in Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and that of the Levite and the concubine).
OT – Chronicles of the Old Testament draws from many stories in the Old Testament, but unless you’re a Biblical scholar some of these stories won’t be familiar. This makes for an interesting experience but at times you wonder whether or not the performer’s interpretation best represents the story and the moral in question. What does become clear however is just how many authors are present within the Old Testament and it’s interesting to see how Yahweh oscillates from being a benign force to a benevolent dictator to an almost malevolent force. Although if you are in any way religious you may find Uncle Semolina and Friend’s production trivial and at worse blasphemous, though the company has deliberately chosen to present these stories in this way and (rightfully) makes no apologies for it.
All of the performers give wonderful performances and are committed to ideas that they are working with it, if a little too zealously at times. However the show’s design made the audience feel too safe with the performers seeming too far away to be threatening. Though the set had a grungy lo-fi aesthetic (a staple of Uncle Semolina productions), it seemed oddly out of place within the tightly-manicured Beckett Theatre and it would have been wonderful to see this aesthetic take over the auditorium itself. The most annoying aspect was the music that squelched at you at a volume that was ear-splitting, although ironically this was not one of things that the Malthouse warned you about prior to the show (everything else was well and truly covered).
The broader problem with OT – Chronicles of the Old Testament remains the burden of knowledge. The performers themselves clearly illustrate this in the ways that their characters suffer by having too little or too much knowledge. This burden is also a part of the viewer’s experience, as each viewer will come to this production with their own perceptions on how these stories should be told and will judge OT rightly or wrongly on this basis. This may mean that even for a company as accomplished as Uncle Semolina and Friend’s this subject may be (to mix a New Testament metaphor) too hard a cross to bear.
Malthouse Theatre presents
OT - Chronicles of the Old Testament
Uncle Semolina and Friend’s
Venue: Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse
Season: Friday 4 May – Sunday 27 May 2007
Opening: Wednesday 9 May
Performance Times: Tuesdays at 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturdays at 7.30pm, Sundays at 5pm. Matinees – Friday 11 May, Thursday 17 & 24 May at 1.00pm; and Saturday 19 May at 2pm.
Tickets: $15 - $37 + booking fee
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au