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Review: CATHEDRAL at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

The programme features an evocative image.

Review: CATHEDRAL at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Tuesday 10th May 2022

The first thing you see is the program cover. It is such an evocative image, and the story behind it has a drama of its own. A diver swims upwards to the light, to the surface, to the air, to the sun.

Caleb Lewis's new play for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Cathedral, takes place deep underground. The Cathedral is a cave in the Piccaninnie Ponds part of the subterranean architecture beneath the Limestone Coast of South Australia. The creation of the work has brought this South Australian playwright not just home to the state, but also to his birthplace. Themes of love, loss, and grief swim in shoals with stories of survival. One of those stories, an escape from a plane shot down over Vienna, adds something supernatural to the flow, and also leads to the inclusion of Strauss's Blue Danube waltz, and the comment that the Danube isn't blue. There is humour in the telling, and insight.

A production like this, focussed for maybe eighty minutes on one actor, needs a very special person.
Nathan O'Keefe is Clay, clad in a black neoprene diving suit, in deep water. He is running out of oxygen, nitrogen is building up in his blood, and his life is flashing before his eyes. Moment by moment, we learn of life and its mysteries. Lewis builds our knowledge of Clay's history, incident by incident, leading to a transcendent climax. It is a one-man play, but he is accompanied by voices, his family, his girlfriends, and his diving mates. As an actor, O'Keefe is immensely versatile, and greatly admired by Adelaide audiences. Here he portrays such vulnerability and yet also courage. You stay with him to the end. The audience hung on every word.

Director, Shannon Rush, guides him on the simple, tourable set. Mark Oakley brings the lights, Kathryn Sproul the design, and Andrew Howard takes on the challenge of the sound with immense skill. The loud noise warning at the entrance to the Space should be noted.

The documentary thread of the story is accompanied by so many thoughts and images, some that swim along aside, and others that flash by in an instant. I've known Caleb Lewis for many years but finally managed to get him on the phone at 5EBI to explore his Cathedral and his deep engagement in the story. It turns out to be shaped by his own life to a remarkable degree. He was, when young, a reader.

"I was a big reader. I've always loved reading literature and, in fact, hadn't really seen a lot of plays or done drama at high school. It was something I came to later, a big lover of fairy tales, books of folklore. I remember I had this great thick book on Greek myths that my grandmother bought me which I adored and treasured."

There are memories of those stories in the currents of the play.

His start as a playwright surprised me. "I was doing Student Radio for a few years at 5UV, and it was sketch comedy, so it was very different, and every week we were writing multiple sketches, and I think I just learned how little it takes, a few sounds, some astute exposition of, and identification of context and setting. I think the audience's imagination is an untapped resource and I think we can trust in it and we can really invite the audience to lean in and listen and imagine in a way that theatre, perhaps, doesn't appreciate. I feel we make more of that, it's an underexploited resource."

The diving background, the knowledge of the diver's physiology, and the risks attached to the endeavour, point to a deep understanding of the subject.

"My dad was a scuba diving instructor and I have lots of memories, being a little kid sitting by the pool, reading while he worked with five or six people in the water, taking them through their drills. Years later, I did my own open water scuba diving certificate. In fact, I did my first night dive at Ewens Ponds, which is mainly about ten kilometres away from Piccanninie Ponds, where the play is set. It was there I did my first night dive and, to this day, it is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever done in my life, to float in perfect darkness, then look up and you can see are stars. I felt like an astronaut."

In fact astronauts train for weightlessness in deep water. Another strand in the story is particularly sad. Working for the Port of Melbourne Authority, his father often had to retrieve the bodies of suicides who had jumped from the Westgate bridge, then go and find the belongings they had relinquished, shoes, coats, handbags...

There is a moment when that story is told. Clay and his girlfriend go night swimming. It leads to a moment of discovery that surprised even the playwright.

"I knew it would involve a loss, some kind of Orpheus and Euridice journey into the ponds in order to recover a lost soul, or in hopes of it. I thought it was the girlfriend. Everything is being set up for that. You've got these young lovers in the water. There was a splash. What was that? And they make their way back to the jetty and it's his mum's handbag. It was as big a shock to me in the writing of it as it, hopefully, is to the audience in witnessing, and it stood the play on its head and took it in a far more interesting direction."

I've seen several of Lewis's plays and treasure, particularly, Death in Bowengabbie, with Eliot Howard in the Bakehouse Theatre, another solo narrative, but he thinks that some of his plays might have been constrained a little by his ideas, and that the creation of Cathedral tapped into something deeper, perhaps even a heartfelt contact with the subconscious.

"With this play I was lost in the sinkhole. I didn't know quite what the play was about. I didn't know where it would go and what would happen. I just had this trust to keep writing and it would find its way."

The word amniotic occurs early in the play, and Clay is a foetus waiting to be born, to swim to the light of a new life. "I'm not spiritual. My mum is and believes in an afterlife. I don't. I think, let's make the most of our life on earth and cherish every moment. I have a deep belief, if not in the afterlife, in life, in mortality, and the small kindnesses we can do one another every day that can manifest to make peoples' lives easier". His family was struck by several close deaths during the writing period.

"The play is very much about grief, but and there are things that should have been obvious to me in retrospect but, perhaps, the fact that they weren't, gives the play a fragility and a delicacy that I might have been more clumsy with, had I known, but its a play about a guy who awakens in a very dark hole in his life, and he's trying to find a way out of it."

The picture on the front cover was taken by Dr Richard Harris, an anaesthetist and deep diver. He was one of the people Lewis consulted. He was also one of the divers who rescued the young Thai footballers trapped in a cave by rising water. A picture is worth, they say, a thousand words. The many thousand words of Cathedral create an enthralling moving picture.

Photography, Matt Byrne.

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