Margaret Hollingsworth finds herself needing to think deeply about an intentionally chaotic modern mystery play devised by the Birmingham based company Stan’s Cafe
Devised by Stan’s Cafe http://www.stanscafe.co.uk/about-us.html
and performed at the World Stage Festival in Toronto, Canada
I suspect that someone in the Birmingham-based collective that comprises Stan’s Cafe threw out an idea while they were having a cup of tea. Why don’t we do a modern mystery play? The play’s evolution, chaotic, painstaking, silly and profound must have exhausted the group physically and mentally if they didn’t keel over from an overdose of irony first. They present a sort of Chinese puzzle of images, ideas, metaphors, one collapsing into the next; the more I think about The Cardinals the more I have to think about. It appeals simultaneously to the heart, the head and the gut and speaks at the deepest level to the power of theatre.
Simultaneously rough and sophisticated, The Cardinals stands outside itself. Commenting on both the vehicle (theatre) and the content (the Catholic church), it reflects on how the church itself uses metaphor and theatricality. This is not a new discovery: religious ritual and theatre have been intricately interwoven since the time of the cave-men, but I’ve rarely seen it handled so deftly.
Through a series of vignettes we glimpse the bible as metaphor – a rattling good story not to be taken literally. It is open to a myriad of interpretations, though the cardinals do their best to put their own stamp on it.
The suspension of disbelief which is at the heart of theatre (and central to all Judeo-Christian worship) is dangled before us, provoking and tantalizing. The piece opens with a red robed cardinal, framed by a puppet stage, screaming – an image stolen from Munch. Three cardinals confer but we can’t hear what they’re saying. In fact we never hear them, this piece is virtually wordless. The puppet show opens with a scene from Genesis and we watch the all-male group of actors morph into Adam, Eve, God and the snake, hastily donning wigs and costumes, ill-concealed behind the rough frame of the puppet stage. We witness them first as men, then as actors who are playing cardinals who are, simultaneously, playing puppet versions of biblical characters. The question of who is actually manipulating all this hangs in the balance. Can it be the bewigged God figure who puts in a brief appearance. Or is it the partially veiled Moslem stage manger who acts as a traffic cop imposing order on the chaotic scene changes (and of whom there will be more later)?
We are taken on a journey through the Old and New Testaments which is simultaneously simple, even simplistic and profoundly beautiful. I found myself determinedly clinging to my suspension of disbelief as the actors/ would-be cardinals climbed ladders, barely keeping hold of props, searched for costumes and marked time changes in pig Latin while liturgical music drifted through scenes, sometimes corny, sometimes bone-chilling. It’s often funny but the audience is always complicit in the humour, it’s never a send-up. Questions are raised without verbal comments or responses. Can Jesus really have walked on water? Yes, in this version he does, with the help of raised parallel bars, a billowing backcloth and a toy replica of a boat. The cardinals morph into God, Abraham, Goliath, Mary, John the Baptist and tens of other biblical characters. I was apprehensive about what they would do with the Crucifixion, but they handled it with great delicacy, the final image of the women holding the body of Christ reminding us of other interpretations of this scene in Renaissance paintings. The actor playing Christ supplies the blood on the end of the spear that pierces his side using a shred of red cloth. The violence depicted in this scene, as in all the historical scenes up to the present, is handled without any outward display of hostility.
The puppet/cardinal/actors are ably assisted by their stage manager who manipulates toy-like wooden armies, palaces and cities on long wooden poles as if she were playing bar football. Finally – and movingly – she kneels and breaks into prayer and song as the biblical scenes veer into more modern, more dangerous territory. We encounter a suicide bomber, planes screech overhead, we watch the slow disintegration of Jerusalem. What has, up till now, been an ironic, somewhat childlike take on religious wars such as the Crusades becomes manic and terrifying.
Whether they are playing angels or warriors, these actors never lose their humanity. As they stumble through their production, rushing from prop to prop, costume to costume, they show their flesh. They, like us, are fallible: at any moment the whole shebang could come tumbling down. The show starts and ends with a scream. Our audience in Toronto is multi-cultural and many – particularly the younger ones – may not have been familiar with the bible stories; but the piece never explains, never talks down. It can be taken on any or all levels. Some people may have come away with more insight if they were not aware of the role the Catholic church has played in our ‘progress’ through the last two millennia; but I’d challenge anyone to watch this show without feeling complicit in the evolving, revolving history of our planet. Toronto audiences are well known for their generous standing ovations – but in this case they stayed in their seats, their applause muted, their faces showing signs of having come out the other side of a hefty challenge.
Margaret Hollingsworth is a playwright who started life in England and seems to be finishing it in Canada. She has an enduring interest in experimental theatre. She has also published short stories, a novel, many essays and has just completed a poetry manuscript.