Exile engagement

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.

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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.

staging

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.

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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.

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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?’

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“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.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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