The Mysteries: Genesis

The Mysteries: GenesisLeft - Sophie Ross and Cameron Goodall. Cover - the Cast of The Mysteries: Genesis. Photos - Brett Boardman

The infeasibly versatile Hilary Bell & Lally Katz certainly took on ambitious subject matter in The Mysteries: Genesis. Similarly, Sydney Theatre Company has made a substantial investment in forming The Residents; no, not an ubercool, unclassifiable band in the mould of The Necks, but a permanent ensemble of performers, residing at The Wharf, that is engaged across all the company's diverse activities, from Main Stage to Next Stage, Back Stage and STC Ed. Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, Ursula Mills, Julia Ohannessian, Zindzi Okenyo, Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul and Brett Stiller are at the mercy of developing and developed playwrights and directors, for the 'exploration, shaping and fine-tuning of new works'.

Wharf 2 has been dramatically reconfigured for this production. Starkly black, with a gallery and a limited number of chairs and cushions downstairs, on a hot and oppressively humid Sydney pseudo-summer evening, it invites fatigue. If you're going to spend a considerable amount of time standing, it'd better be good. It is.

Richard Pyros has the unenviable role of God. Frankly, I was expecting someone taller and a little more mature. In any case, God shows himself to be the enigma of contradictions and bad temper he is in The Bible. In fact, thanks to Bell, Katz, and the trio of directors and others responsible for this three-part evocation of Genesis (it runs nigh-on 3.5 hours, including two 15-minute intervals), God is taken back to his roots: we peer behind the eternal curtain, finding him (and I've long thought he was a she) to be rather more troubled, conflicted, volatile and, well, ordinary than his extraordinary reputation would lead us to believe. Indeed, God is as naked, exposed and vulnerable as his offspring.

Part 1, Eden, is directed by Perth-based theatre-maker, Matt Lutton, assisted by Imara Savage, and he takes what many would consider a profound liberty a step further. God, Adam, and Eve are veritable children, in a playground, ensconced in that impossible idyll all too short-lived. With the shaking of a mere tree, all are shaken from innocence. God 'appears' first as a narrator of gravitas; ('though I'm not sure even God carries as big a vocal stick as, say, Orson Welles). The space fades to pitch-black, echoing the void; slowly the form of a man is divulged.

Tribute is owed to lighting designer, Paul Jackson, who's ensured that, from the very first moment, the work has the kind of elemental simplicity and drama befitting the stark, compelling story of the first stirrings of our kind, and our world. Indeed, much of the impact of the performance is due to lighting, sound and other design. Alice Babidge deserves much of the credit, as does sound designer, Kingsley Reeve.  

The man unfolding and evolving as if from a chrysalis in the first-ever dawn is, of course, Adam, portrayed as a slight, loving and gullible creature; a fool, perhaps. Cameron Goodall plays the wide-eyed naivete to a tee. God watches much as a parent would, granting Adam the right to name his fellow creatures. A gigantic penguin wanders in and shows itself, within but a short time, to have as much, if not more, awareness and common sense than Adam, or Eve. Adam, for instance, isn't capable of lateral thought: it doesn't occur to him to get horizontal, to sleep. He tries it standing up, like his pal, the penguin (Zindzi Okenyo). Nonetheless, he soon becomes aware of a longing, in realising he is alone, one of a kind, the likeness of God having left him to his own devices, while remaining as ever-watchful as an inner city security camera. In deference, God rips out a spare rib and, voila, Eve, played assertively by Sophie Ross, is born.

But even before the ill-fated, star-crossed couple emerge, we meet Lucifer, God's first, if fallen, favourite. The scene in which Brett Stiller is swathed in black dust, pouring from on high, and relegated to that reviled land down under, is spellbindingly choreographic; again, almost sculptural. It's a fullblown contrast to the white 'snow' that carpets Eden, in which our protagonists cavort. This last helps engender the nostalgic, dreamlike aesthetic Lutton seems to have been so keen to evoke, pregnant with the echoes of earliest memory. Eden, like memory, can live only in our imagination; an unrecoverable, longed-for landscape. At the same time, there was careful attention to detail: for example, when God learns of Adam & Eve's naughtiness, he develops the self-same tic with which Lucifer was afflicted. There is poetry, pathos and provocation at every plot turn.

The fall is denoted, aurally, by a thunderous clamour, which is, almost undeniably, chilling.

Andrew Upton's direction of Part 2, After The Fall, is utterly divergent from the style, elegance and power of the first, taking an eccentric musical tack, with players in the gallery, on a ladder joining the upper and lower spaces and mingling with the audience, scattered across the downstairs. It has a more arthouse, workshop feel which I found, on the whole, to be less efficacious, technically and otherwise. Depending where one stood, or sat, elements of performance were obscured. And, if anything, the novelty and eccentricity of the songs overtook the narrative which, while I applaud the experimentation, hardly needs embellishment, excess, or artifice. And I'm not sure I was left with any new or refreshing insight or perspective, unlike Lutton's sensitive encapsulation of Eden, which affords a metaphorical paradigm of Eden as a cordoned-off oasis of uncorrupted guilelessness, from which we less than gradually retreat, into worldly adulthood. Lutton also argues, effectively, that our quest for fulfilment harks back to that very first dawn. We remain unrequited, even in satisfying every new lust; whether for knowledge of good and evil, or a Nintendo Wii. The key idea is embodied in Katz' phrase, onto which Lutton has enthusiastically latched: God 'created man with a crack'. There is more than theatrical licence at play, there is theological forthrightness: since man is in God's image, God, too, must also have this crack; this hole, that prevents wholeness and completion. It's a sophisticated idea that finds a comfortable home in Judaism, but an itchier, more troublesome disposition in fundamentalist Christianity. Lutton has expanded upon and fully-exploited the potency of Bell & Katz' work, with thoughtful, premeditated direction. Upton's follow-up is more reflective of the chaotic, unknowing, ever-questing, trial-and-error nature of things, which besets, characterises and plagues all human endeavour. To this extent his, too, is a meaningful and thought-provoking evocation, but one which runs the risk, even in its effort to reflect such, of boiling over into its own, internal confusion.

Part 3, directed by Tom Wright, was distinct from, yet had more compatibility with Part 1. A starkly simple set, a pile of mattresses, sufficed as Noah's ark. While Wright has been quick to underscore faithfulness to medieval 'mystery' plays, often disparate, yet back-to-back, I discern some camaraderie of artistic spirit, intentional, or not. Noah here is, perhaps rightly, portrayed as bipolar; on the one hand, taking to his bed for days on end, on the other, the driving-force in a deluge of action. Like Charles Manson, or others since, he brainwashes and recruits susceptible fellow travellers. It's a powerful portrait and one I've often thought, in attributing grandiose mental illness, applicable to other biblical figures, including John (The Baptist) and Jesus Christ. Part 3 also has affinity with the first, insofar as elegant simplicity of set design, already described. Players emerge, like ephemeral beings (so appropriate to the dubiousness of religious narrative), from an invisible seam in the millefeuille of mattresses. It's delicate, fluid and beautiful. Visual art.

Not to be overlooked are composer, Ash Gibson Greig, and musical director, Charmian Gradwell. Nor the considerable and complex feat of production management, by Janet Eades; stage management, by John Reid, Millie Mullinar, Sarah Smith & Edwina Guinness. Indeed, there are yet others who've had a hand in the success of this dauntingly ambitious work.

Coming back to The Residents themselves, Alice Ansara, as a later incarnation of Lucifer, was agreeably deceptive. She was commensurately effective, as clueless goody-two-shoes Abel. As Noah's wife, Enzara, she was scolding and supportive, by turns, which had the ring of confidence, in reflecting a reality of marital relationship.

Ursula Mills, with hair in a ponytail obscuring her face (Dalek-meets-Cousin It-style, only in a creepy, not comical, way), was death, personified, popping up when least expected, or wanted. She was adorably credulous, too, as Johanna. Well, everyone wants something to believe in. Sometimes, it doesn't even seem to matter what.

Zindzi Okenyo extended herself beyond a penguin suit, to feature as Cain's daughter, Adan; (who bore children to her brother, or cousin, Enoch, depending who and what you choose to believe, and the rest, as they say, is incestry). She is a vigorous, commanding and charismatic actor.

Julia Ohannessian shone brightly, as Sylvia, another of Noah's trusting 'daughters', and as Cain's granddaughter. Sophie Ross reappeared, too, as Barbara, the third illicit concubine of the floodmaster.

The standouts, for mine, were Tahki Saul's histrionic Noah (he also played Seth), and Stiller's Cain, even biblically, a character so much better fleshed-out than his insipid sibling. All the above characters were played with intensity and conviction.

In observing what is, to my mind, the two most important words in the bible, 'God created', The Residents have already done STC proud indeed. If there is a great and mighty spiritual being, in some manner or mode a mould for our (self-)image, they've also done her justice. And this is certainly quite a creation, not least behind the scenes, through the media of set, sound, lighting and visual effects design. As for thoughtful directors, two out of three ain't bad: while Andrew Upton has already proven himself to be an invaluable visionary artistic director for STC, I'm not so enamoured of his apparent contribution to Part 2.

If i were to find fault, it would apply to sheer length (and a modicum of self-indulgence, chiefly in the writing), which, despite the respite, refuge and refreshment of two intervals, was tough on a substantially standing audience, on a sultry Sydney night.

'Knowledge loosens the skin' is a too-true and somewhat unpalatable fact attendant, singularly, to the human condition. Fortunately, theatre tending towards the trancendent, and dealing with themes that surely qualify as such, at least tightens it again, like a megadose of collagen, while sharpening the mind, lifting the (yes) spirit and alleviating the burden of more mundane concerns.

What a pity such nights must give way to the glare of new, yet tediously familiar, first light.

Sydney Theatre Company presents The Residents in
The Mysteries: Genesis
by Hilary Bell and Lally Katz

Directors: Matthew Lutton, Andrew Upton and Tom Wright

Venue: Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company | Pier 4 Hickson Road. (Please note venue change. This production was originally advertised to be presented at CarriageWorks)
Dates: 20 November to 19 December 2009
Tickets: $30 to $75 
Bookings: 9250 1777 or

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