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The Seduction of Almighty God
AUTHOR: Howard Barker
VENUE: St James Cavalier, Valletta
DATES: 9-11, 16-18, 23 - 25 April 2010
DIRECTOR: Amelia Nicholson
CAST: Matthew Scurfield, Nathan Brimmer, Michael Zammit Maempel, Joe Azzopardi, Andrew Galea, Pia Zammit, Lizzie Eldridge, Coryse Borg, Anthony Ellul
SUMMARY: The Seduction of Almighty God is set during the dissolution of the monasteries, a critical moment in the history of the English priesthood. The loss of faith and corruption that characterized the priests of this period is unexpectedly challenged by the arrival of a young man with an unsullied and passionate belief in God.
*a co production with St James Cavalier, Centre for Creativity, Valletta.
What the Papers Said:
Invaded by God Almighty
Paul Xuereb Sunday Times, Malta, 18 April 2010
Like Edward Bond, Howard Barker is a dramatist who is held in high esteem by some English theatre experts , and also by theatre people in countries like Germany, but whose plays are so rarely performed in his own country that he has had to create his own organisation to make sure they are performed.
Like Bond, he deals solely with tough and complex themes, but unlike Bond, he is not very interested in inventing interesting plots and in creating characters having much solidity, especially in his more recent work.
The extravagantly titled The Seduction of Almighty God by the boy priest Loftus in the Abbey ofCalcetto1539 (Unifaun at St James Cavalier) is typical of these later works.
Adrian Buckle , Unifaun’s director who loves nothing better than to challenge accepted ideas, describes the play as a modern classic . This is a brave thing to say about a play written just four years ago and one, moreover, that tries to tackle profound themes i n a style that could be sometimes a dark version of commedia dell’arte.
It is not , however, a play one can dismiss, for a good many of the lines and the atmosphere of some scenes have good touches of poetic theatre.
The first long speech in the play, delivered by Matthew Scurfield as Abbot Ragman, did alarm me somewhat because of its delivery i n an old-fashioned semi-hammy style , but fortunately this soon wore off, and the poetry in the lines, when it came, was much more acceptable.
Theoretically, the play is set in England in 1539, the period of the great dissolution of religious houses by Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell, but Amelia Nicholson’s direction gives the play a modern setting , and I feel sure this was Barker’s intention.
Loftus, the teenage novice who is the principal character, and the few monks left in the abbey at the time the play opens, wear a habit very similar to the traditional one still worn by Dominican friars in our own time, so there is a visual tie with the 16th century.
Since Loftus, the novice, is trying t o bring back t he abbey morally to the good old times, and is rebuked for not being ‘modern’, the direction might have made the point more visual by clothing Loftus in the habit of the order. The others, who have forgotten God and the rule of the order, would have worn the ‘clergyman’ suit most friars and monks in many countries wear nowadays when not on duty in church.
The great problem Loftus faces is that by striving so hard to enter God, he finds himself somehow becoming God and eventually finding that the God who has empowered him is an imperfect being.
I think it was Bernard Shaw who thought God created man as a tool for perfecting Himself, but Loftus, after seeing the people he fears or of whom he strongly disapproves die at his wish, begins to feel he is the “bearer of God’s hate” and that God is mischievously making use of Loftus.
Except for the Abbot, whose weakness is lavish eating and drinking , the main fault of the other monks – just two of them – lies in having sex with the neighbouring women.
But Loftus is able to resist this sin , even when they have long conversations with him having bared their breasts, much to the chagrin of those women.
His undoing comes when two mysterious men, presumably sent by people who wish to take control of the abbey in order to develop it and become rich , enter the abbey and sodomise Loftus, not once but twice.
When Loftus unsuccessfully wishes those men to die , he begins to think God has wished him to suffer the agony of his violation. Things go very wrong when Cooter , a former monk Loftus has expelled, comes in to say he has bought the abbey and will demolish it, and when t he latest man Loftus has wished dead, comes back from the dead t o cl ai m hi s wife , Loftus is lost .
The women he has scorned now come to take a final , cruel revenge. The abbey is now nearly dead, and perhaps Barker is hinting that the universal Church itself may be dying.
Hanging as it does between a tragedy and a dark comedy, the play cannot be easy to direct . Nicholson has found a middle path between stylisation and naturalism, but she never holds back in scenes of great tension, spiritual and psychological.
The early scenes are a trifle slow, with the result that the production lasts a good 15 minutes more than the 90 minutes (without interval) previously announced.
A broken arch and a large rose window poised over the acting area (which, symbolically, begins to fall at the very end of the performance) do very well for a set.
Joe Azzopardi’s Loftus is a young man whose self-confidence, based on his firm belief in his relationship with God, rarely falters and breaks only at the end when he feels God has abandoned him.
The performance is flawed by his failure to change his facial expression more and by not preparing the audience for his many fits – epileptic? – and for his occasional outbursts of loud laughter, but all in all, he convinced me that he was an extraordinary young man thrust into situations he was trying hard to understand.
After his stagey opening scene, Scurfield develops Ragman convincingly into a priest who has lost his spiritual way through his worldliness but finds a return to his vocation in his support and protection of Loftus.
His mingled awe and affection for Loftus come out very well. Of the other male parts , Anthony Ellul’s Cooter is a lecherous monk who loves the good things of life , and his return to the abbey, after his expulsion , is nauseatingly triumphant.
In two of the secondary women’s roles , Lizzie Eldridge and Pia Zammit busy themselves in more ways than one, sometimes most surprisingly.
The Troubling Seduction of Words over Form
Does God really work in mysterious ways? Or are his ways more terrifying than edifying? Playwright Howard Barker’s vision of the Theatre of Catastrophe focuses mainly on the themes of violence, sexuality, the desire for power and human motivation – all of which were plentiful in Unifaun Theatre’s latest production of Barker’s The Seduction of Almighty God by the Boy Priest Loftus in the Abbey of Calcetto 1539 at St James Cavalier last weekend. Barker’s intense belief in the reviving properties which the tragedic genre has on contemporary theatre, have led him to create pieces which disturb the mind by heightening the senses.
In a well-cast production that was rich in its post-modernist idiom, director Amelia Nicholson made some very wise choices in staging within the intimate acting space provided by the theatre at St James. Romualdo Moretti’s highly effective and stylised set design was a masterful piece of conceptual installation in its own right, proving to be equally functional and symbolic. Composed of a damaged rose window, suspended above one angle of the performance space and a single crumbling half-arch way in the gothic style, the stage immediately gave the impression of dilapidated grandeur, of lofty ideals gone awry. Combined with Jasmina Reljic’s interesting cross-chronological costume design, Chris Gatt’s tenebrous lighting and Ms. Nicholson’s strong directorial approach, the piece had a fluid compactness to it which was only slightly marred by occasionally over-long pauses, which lost their dramatic effect but relayed the sense of oppression which the play was intended to give.
Up-and-coming young actor Joe Azzopardi played the title role of Loftus – a youthful, overly zealous novice and later, priest whose deep faith and depressing social conditions lead him to press Matthew Scurfield’s Abbot Ragman to take him in. Loftus, inadvertently proceeds to “seduce” God by means of his unwavering devotion and inflexible moral standards, which lead him to channel and manifest a series of god-like powers which he unleashes upon undeserving and blasphemous sinners whom he sees around him. Thus God’s seduction is the attribution of divine qualities - ability to take and restore life as Loftus sees fit; to a young man who is not only deeply insecure beneath his staunch religious convictions, but also frustrated by it – both sexually and socio-politically. The ability to exert the wrath of God in the wrong hands is truly dangerous and this is Dies Irae indeed – in the most brutal and vindictive of ways.
Loftus’ inability to control his anger and frustration at first terrifies him – and in fact, his first “kill” – that of Michael Zammit Maempel’s lecherous priest Penge, is done in a natural murderous manner with his bare hands. This is when he experiences his first fit, and from then on, the deaths become more sinister and supernatural. Mr. Azzopardi gave a solid performance as Loftus and worked well with the other cast members, particularly Mr. Scurfield’s excellent Ragman. Dr. Zammit Maempel’s animated performances, as both Penge and later as officer Box, both destined to die at Loftus’ will, were controlled and well-paced while Anthony Ellul’s even more obnoxious de-frocked priest Cooter was a strong and credible one, which alarmingly almost excused some of his character’s unsavoury actions. Andrew Galea’s two forceful characters, Exx and Cotton and Nathan Brimmer’s Intruder helped create a scenario in which men are portrayed as being almost anything but honourable – from cowards and sycophants to scheming scum-bags. The only redemptive male character was Mr. Brimmer’s much more timid and honest Biro, whom Loftus initially kills but later chooses to revive, not because he is a bad man in his own right but because of the corrupt government he represents. In fact, all the officials killed are a collective negative portrayal of the heartless burocracy of progress at a time when Britain was engaged in the dissolution of the monasteries and Europe dealing with the schismic rifts between Catholicism and Protestantism.
The women’s characters in the piece were mere vehicles for Loftus’ troubled almost oedipal approach towards relationships with the opposite sex. In two separate scenes, which showcased the voluptuous Pia Zammit, in the flesh, so to speak, and Lizzie Eldridge’s frail Fellow, both women bare themselves physically and figuratively to Loftus in an attempt not to seduce, but to induce sympathy and implore mercy. Ms. Zammit’s Shelf and Bath were feisty and forthright while Ms. Eldridge’s shadowy Fellow exerted her presence almost ethereally. I particularly liked Coryse Borg’s performances as both Volume, Loftus’ mother and Nape, Biro’s desperate wife, which were both imbued with enough depth to carry their heavy burden. Noticeably, the women’s names objectify them and in the end, they are the ones who are not killed, but join Loftus in a harem of grey disciples, dissolving their identities to create a wave of women with a single face and a singular purpose - to serve Loftus and satisfy his religious needs in lieu of his sexual repression – revealing that Loftus’ final martyrdom in a symbolic crucifixion is as stifling and entrapping for him as their soulless lives have been rendered by him. All Beliefs come crashing down with the rose window in the end and leave the audience feeling frayed. The Seduction of Almighty God by the Boy Priest Loftus, is a performance, rather than a play, which works thanks to its excellent direction and strong cast but the beauty of Barker’s language, which he believes to be transformed into poetic form thanks to the use of tragedic catastrophe, is not enough to mask a weakly-plotted script with loosely strung thematic concerns, which relies heavily on the execution of a good performance to buoy it up.
Extra performances have been scheduled for The Seduction of Almighty God by the Boy Priest Loftus, which will run on the 16, 18, 23, 24, 25, April at St James Cavalier.
-Andre Delicata, The Times, Malta
TWEMMIN ASSOLUT JEW AGENDI PERSONALI ?
UNIFAUN THEATRE PRODUCTIONS immexxijin minn Adrian Buckle dejjem itellghu xoghlijiet provokattivi bil-ghan li jqajjmu diskussjoni u dibattitu. L-ghazla tal-ahhar dramm ipprezentat fit-Teatru Tond tal-Kavallier ta’ San Gakbu - THE SEDUCTION OF ALMIGHTY GOD BY THE BOY PRIEST LOFTUS IN THE ABBEY OF CALCETTO 1539 - tesplora avvenimenti li graw fis-Seklu 16 u tghaqqadhom mal-prezent biex b’hekk isiru relevanti ghal zminijietna. Id-dramm hu ambjentat fl-epoka meta fl-Ingilterra l-kunventi kienu qed jizzarmaw fuq decizzjoni tal-gvern anti-klerikali li kien hemm u anke minhabba n-nuqqas ta’ religjuzi, bil-propjeta tinhataf minn spekulaturi li riedu jaqilghu erba’ soldi tajbin minnha. Kien zmien ta’ incertezza morali meta anke l-istess nies li suppost li kienu qed isahhu l-identita spiritwali taghhom kienu saru korrotti u bla principji. Min illum il-gurnata ma jafx nies bhalhom li mohhom biss fi bwiethom, nies li jigu jaqghu u jqumu mill-hsara li jaghmlu lil haddiehor? Min jista’ jmeri l-fatt li anke llum hawn incertezza morali kbira? Kif ighid il-Malti m’hawn xejn gdid taht il-kappa tax-xemx.
L-istorja tirrakkonta kif Loftus, guvni ta’ 17-il sena li jemmen bis-shih f’Alla jasal fil-kunvent li jkun se jinghalaq fuq ordni tal-mexxejja korrotti. Jinsisti mal-pirjol li jaccettah bhala novizz u dan, wara certu titubanza, icedi. Loftus kien guvni axxetiku u determinat. Jemmen li kien qieghed fil-kunvent biex inaddfu mill-atti immorali tar-residenti tieghu. Id-devozzjoni u l-fidi idealistika tieghu ma jdumux ma jimpressjonaw lil ftit patrijiet li kien fadal. Dawn iktar kienu mohhom fin-nisa tal-madwar u kif se jbieghu il-kunvent ghall-qliegh personali taghhom milli mill-ispiritwalita li taghha suppost li kienu xhieda. Loftus izda kien kapaci jirrezisti tentazzjonijiet sew fizici kif ukoll sesswali. Beda jintebah li seta’ jehles min-nies ‘hziena’ billi joqtohhom. Seta’ anke jekk jehtieg igibhom lura mill-mewt. Beda jemmen li kien il-kontroll shih fuqu nnifsu li tah il-qawwa fuq il-hajja u mewt u li Alla kien sar impotenti u ghalhekk ghadda l-qawwa Tieghu fuqu. Izda Loftus kien isofri minn attakki tal-puplesija u l-attitudni superjuri tieghu ma dametx ma qajmet kurrenti kontrieh tant li kien sodomizzat darbtejn minn dawk li hassewhom mhedda u mfixkla fil-pjanijiet korrotti taghhom. Ivvittimizzat minn shabu u addirittura maqtul min-nisa li dejjem zamm iebes kontrihom anke meta ttantat fizikament u sesswalment, nintebhu li kien Alla li sseducih u mhux bil-maqlub.
F’dan id-dramm xejn facli u maghruf, spikka hafna r-rectar ta’ Joe Azzopardi fil-parti ta’ Loftus. Kien konsistenti matul ix-xoghol kollu ghalkemm kien hemm mumenti meta d-dahqa qawwija tieghu stunat ghax qisha ma kienx hemm lokha. Ghogobni hafna l-mod ‘superjuri’ kif gab ruhu ma’ nies korrotti bhal Cooter (Anthony Ellul) li qaxxar il-parti ta’ bniedem hazin. Ghogobni wkoll Matthew Scurfield, Ragman, il-pirjor li kellu relazzjoni specjali ma’ dan il-guvni li kiber wisq ghal zarbunu. Fil-bidu dawn iz-zewg karattri bdew inaqqsu mill-andament tax-xoghol ghax il-pass li mxew bih kien xi ftit kajman, imma wara ftit il-botta u risposta bejniethom saret iktar naturali. Xorta, izda, il-produzzjoni hadet hafna hin ghax damet iktar minn 100 minuta – u dan f’xoghol b’att wiehed biss.
Mit-tliet nisa impressjonat l-iktar Pia Zammit – u minix nghid ghall-gojjelli tal-familja li ma ddejqitx tikxet bhal m’ghamlet Lizzie Eldridge. Pia hija attrici b’sahhitha u b’hekk thalli impatt qawwi kull meta tohrog fuq il-palk. Iktar etera kienet Eldridge waqt li Coryse Borg kellha parti iktar dinjituza, ghalkemm mizzewga lil Biro tal-Insurance (Nathan Brimmer) Kienu dawn it-tliet nisa li qatlu lil Loftus fl-ahhar tad-dramm biex b’hekk mietet il-holma snaturata tieghu.
Ix-xoghol tad-direttrici Amelia Nicholson ma kienx wiehed hafif. Kellha ttella’ xoghol kwazi kompletament gdid ghall-udjenza Maltija, dramm miktub minghajr lanqas punt wiehed ta’ punteggatura u li jittratta tema delikata hafna partikolarment f’pajjiz fejn - nghiduha kif inhi - l-irjus ghadhom ftit marbuta z-zejjed. Ghalhekk hija tassew haga tajba li kumpaniji bhal ta’ Adrian Buckle iwasslu kitbiet godda (id-dramm inkiteb fl-2006) li jgieghlu lill-udjenza tahseb.
Is-sett kien evokattiv hafna u hadem sew, partikolarmnet meta r-rose window taqa’ minn postha b’implikazzjonijiet cari ghal dak li kien qieghed isehh. Michael Zammit Maempel u Andrew Galea kienu z-zewg atturi l-ohra li hadu sehem f’dan id-dramm ta’ Barker li jirraprezenta enigma anke ghall-qasam teatrali Ingliz.
Joyce Guillaumier, It-Torca
pictures by Darrin Zammit Lupi