St Mary’s in Exile (Queensland Theatre Company)
The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio
August 27 – September 25
Brisbane may be the place we love to hate, but it comes with it’s a wonderful array of stories. And there is perhaps no story as epic as the complex conflict between Father Peter Kennedy and the institution of the Catholic Church, leading to one of the largest schisms in the church’s modern history when, in 2009, hundreds of people literally walked away from their spiritual home of St Mary’s Catholic Parish in South Brisbane. It is from this rich real-life incident that Queensland Theatre Company has created the riveting work “St Mary’s in Exile”. Bravely tacking re-evaluation of a story already told less than a decade ago, the work documents the most local story in the theatre company’s history (given that events occurred just meters away from its South Brisbane location) in a rigorous work of weighty ideas explored through author David Burton’s thoughtful, intelligent script.
The passionate and public conflict between the diverse inner city church community and the Vatican is revisited without prejudice, beginning on the stormy night when, after refusing to resign or to fall in line with orthodoxy, an excommunicated Father Peter (Peter Marshall) is packing up to go into exile. A mysterious young homeless visitor (Ben Warren) walks out of the rain, wanting to know the story behind this unconventional holy man and what drove him to defiance, and so the story unfolds of how and why the Father Peter and his radical side-kick Father Terry Fitzpatrick (Kevin Spink) chose not to play by the ‘club rules’, changing words of the liturgy and Eucharist and allowing a statue of Buddha in the foyer. The work is an examination of Father Peter’s journey, and of those who supported and opposed him in this time. And when, in the second act, the threads come together, the result is a story at times funny, at times sad and at times challenging.
A simple, abstract design aesthetic represents a sense of sacred space, but still allows for full focus on the show’s dense ideas and multiple timelines. Functional sliding doors facilitate swift scene changes and concrete textures contrast with natural wood furniture and religious symbolism. Vibrancy comes from its community of parishioners, reflected in both their costumes and characters.
Under the direction of Jason Klarwein, all cast members deliver solidly with rich character portraits. Peter Marshall gives an emotionally charged performance as Father Peter, supported perfectly by Kevin Spink as the comparatively casual Father Fitzpatrick and Joss McWilliam as Archbishop John Bathersby. In his QTC debut, Ben Warren makes a memorable show of his early cat-and-mouse interaction with Father Peter before settling into steadfast confrontation of the beloved father regarding the authority of the church. Chenoa Deemal is engaging as the voice-of-reason partitioner Beth and Luisa Prosser (also in her QTC debut) is a lively, formidable Ruth. As the loyal and sensitive Joseph, Bryan Probets again proves what an asset he is to any production, taking audience members from a moving monologue expression of Corinthians 13’s commentary of faith, hope and love, to a truly hilarious Tony Abbott impression as part of the play’s Q&A re-enactment.
As in reality, humour exists within the work’s moments of great tension, which aids audience engagement; jokes about West End gentrification and the Go Between Bridge not only emphasises the place of the story between reality and myth, but help enhance its appeal as a warm, human work. This is more than just a David and Goliath story. Indeed, its focus on community and faith allows provocation of much post-show discussion about its important, relevant themes, including answer to the question, ‘were they exiled or did they exile themselves?’
“St Mary’s in Exile” is a powerful and compelling piece of theatre. As a world premiere of an Australian work, it is worthy of celebration in itself, however, its profound examination of grand themes cement it as a timeless telling of a local but also much larger story. Its experience is a reminder not only of the immediacy of theatre as an art from to engage audiences with contemporary issues, but also that extraordinary events are happening around us every day… even in Brisbane.