BWW REVIEW: Both Inspiring And Enlightening, THE CHAPEL PERILOUS Is A Wonderful Expression of An Australian Woman's Journey Of Self Discovery
Saturday 29th April 2017, 7:30pm, New Theatre Newtown
Dorothy Hewett's partly biographical story of a young woman's quest to find herself is presented with raw heart and honesty in Carissa Licciardello's production of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS. The rare combination of an Australian story, written by an Australian woman, about Australian woman, directed by an Australian woman give audiences the special opportunity to experience this infrequently performed gem.
Drawing on 'Grail Romances' which see the hero or heroine being faced with dangerous adventure when they enter the mysterious Chapel Perilous on their quest, this work focuses on the fictional life of Sally Banner's (Julia Christensen) quest for self validation. The bold Sally, who Hewett has woven a lot of herself into, starts as a schoolgirl who exhibits great promise as a poet and writer but has an independent rebellious spirit that refuses to conform to the rules of the staid convent school, her parents' wishes and the conservative early 20th Century society. Her need for validation sees her work through a string of lovers who each in their turn abandon her whilst she gains an unfavourable reputation in her quest for love which she believes equates to sex. Her seemingly resilient exterior masks the string of rejection she experiences and the scandal she endures as the town gossips talk of her failed suicide, aborted child and failed marriage.
Production designer Kyle Jonsson has given Licciardello an imposing slate grey alter and chapel of sorts to have Sally's life unfold in but Licciardello's direction ensures that the audience knows that the story moves well beyond the bounds what is seen. The use of the space in conjunction with Hewett's text takes the audience on the journey with Sally to the university, family home, beach and parks and streets of Perth with little addition to the set. Courtney Westbrook aids in the expression of Sally's growth from schoolgirl in black tunic to a freer university student and then to wife and mother. Westbrook has also incorporated simple wardrobe changes to enable the other performers to double roles, the most significant is that of the four roles Tom Matthews undertakes as the string of Sally's lovers.
As Sally Banner, Julia Christensen is fabulous. She exudes Sally's cheeky confidence as she draws the audience in to her world, breaking the fourth wall to make the audience feel almost complicit in her rebellion, making direct eye contact and sharing sly smirks at the punishment and discipline the school teachers and her parents attempt to deliver. She expresses Hewett's wonderful poetry with a perfect pace, infusing understanding and emotion into every word whilst presenting it with a natural honesty. She has a tone which gives Sally a gravitas around the progressive wisdom of shunning the outdated society whilst still capturing the innocence of her ignorance and misconceptions of who or what will validate her. Christensen captures the range of emotions Sally experiences, from gleeful young love, loss, despair, fear and desperation which ensures that the audience wants her to succeed and does not judge her like the people in her story do. She is powerful in presenting a realistic expression of Sally's feelings, ensuring that the audience can relate on some level, from the desire to be accepted, the need to be loved or the misguided belief that love can only be expressed physically.
As Sally's string of lovers, Tom Matthews handles the quartet of Michael, David, Thomas and Saul well. With little more than a change of top or the addition of glasses, which purposely dwindles by the end of the story, Matthews captures the seemingly different men with a change in physicality and voice tone. He is able to swiftly swap between the various men with ease and clarity and is able to draw out different audience responses for each character.
Alison Chambers doubles as Sally's mother and the overbearing school Headmistress, capturing the similarities in the two figures in Sally's life. Chambers infuses an intriguing physicality to the two roles as she mirrors descriptions with precise hand gestures and her ability to keep knitting throughout is admirable. Chambers presents Sally's mother with a degree of duality as she swings between caring about her child to cursing her and disowning her. As the Headmistress Chambers is often aided by the voiceover of her real thoughts but she also uses her physical expression to convey the truth behind the praise she is heaping on Sally, which eventually deteriorates to truth. As Sally's father, Brett Heath presents a man that has returned from war with trauma leading to a dangerous aggression and a venom when Sally refuses to listen to the war stories on the radio. Heath also portrays the school's priest who for the most part is conservative but is exposed as another lecherous male wanting to exploit Sally.
As Sally's first love, good girl Judith, Meg Clarke presents the schoolgirl's fear at the belief that the kind of friendship Sally wants is wrong. She captures Judith's unease but also her underlying desire which she believes, at the Headmistress' caution, is wrong. When she too rejects Sally, Clarke ensures that the audience realises that it's done with a degree of regret. Clarke also takes on the role of Sister Rosa, transforming herself with a hunched stance in addition to the costume. Clarke's expression of Sister Rosa highlights the judgment the church passed, and still passes, on people that don't conform to its views on worship, obedience and love.
The supporting ensemble of Courtney Bell, Jasper Garner-Gore, Madelaine Osborn and James Wright round out the story, filling the role of schoolgirls, uni students, reporters, and various other members of the community that pass judgment in turn. The ensemble also provides most of the songs which help to indicate the passage of time as styles change and lyrics set the era.
THE CHAPEL PERILOUS is an intriguing and entertaining work that explores the challenging topic of love, judgement, prejudice, forgiveness and the ability to accept oneself and believe in oneself. Licciardello keeps the story moving along with a balanced pace and allows Hewett's text in the hands of great actors to shine rather than attempting to clutter the story with props and unnecessary set changes. An interesting examination of a not to distant, and not too different part of our history along with an exploration of human behaviour and strong women, THE CHAPEL PERILOUS is well worth seeing.
New Theatre, Newtown