THE CHAPEL PERILOUS
THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, New Theatre, 25 April-27 May 2017. Photography by Bob Seary - above - Julia Christensen; below - Tom Matthews and Julia Christensen
Inarguably Dorothy Hewett’s finest creation, Sally Banner is one of the great characters of Australian drama: a simulacrum of the playwright herself and also symbolic of the Australia depicted in the play through her life and times. And as the play is as tricky, ambitious and cussed as the writer, it is rarely staged, so to have it brought to life by young, fresh-out-of-NIDA director Carissa Licciardello is both a huge risk and, happily, a huge treat.
Sally Banner is gloriously played by Julia Christensen, starting out as a school girl of the 1930s, all wide-eyed naughtiness and optimistic brio, and progressing through womanhood’s inevitable disappointments to a sadder place, decades on, but one which cannot defeat her. It’s an energetic, intelligent performance, full of nuance and great stage presence, Christensen is “one to watch”.
Opposite her, in more ways than one, is Tom Matthews who has the unusual (and logical) task of portraying all the important men in her life – Michael, Thomas, David and Saul. It takes a while to get used to figuring them out (a pair of specs, a different jumper, a different shirt) but finally it dawns that he represents how we go through life making the same mistakes; or seeking the same person. Duh. The sinewy, febrile Matthews is an equally intelligent match for Christensen and they’re riveting to watch.
Across the two hour arc of Sally’s classic “quest”, the significant points in her life are defined by not only her men, but also her first defiant and hopeless love for the unwilling Judith (Meg Clarke), and by her lemon-lipped and perpetually knitting mother (Alison Chambers); also in the foreground is Sally’s dad (Brett Heath). And these three actors also double up to play similarly meaningful obstacles to her happiness and progress: Clarke is a scandalised Sister Rosa, Chambers is the disapproving Headmistress and Heath the punishing Canon.
Life for the majority of these Menzies’ people in the never-ending Menzies years was dull, secure and complacent. For Sally/Dorothy – the ambitious poet and young woman yearning for Life with a capital L, these years were excruciating. They were made even more so for the playwright and her alter ego when she became involved in politics and joined the Communist Party.
A heroic, bright-eyed, banner-waving chorus of The Red Flag (including the excellent ensemble of supporting actors: Courtney Bell, Jasper Garner-Gore, Madeleine Osborn and James Wright) is a rare moment of political pleasure in a life of almost relentless frustration and humiliation, even when Sally/Dorothy was the anonymous writer of most of the Party’s weekly paper.
However, Hewett was never that favourite stereotype of mainstream sexism, the “humourless feminist”, and The Chapel Perilous is sharply funny when it’s not simply as absorbing as a good novel – or autobiography. Played out on a set that variously suggests a stylised chapel, a convent school hall and a bleak grown-up world (designer: Kyle Jonsson, lighting design: Martin Kinnane), the action moves smartly and clearly and director Licciardello has drawn like performances from the actors. Sound and song are integral to the play and sound designer Clemence Williams keeps it subtle and effective via musical director Alexander Lee-Rekers.
The Chapel Perilous is an epic of Australian women’s modern history and struggle – to find love, fulfilment and finally, the realisation that none of it matters if you haven’t also found your independent self. No wonder male authority figures hated it: Sally is the epitome of the liberated willy-shriveller, even when down and almost out. Few women of any age would argue with any of it. Recommended!