17 October 2009

Of virgins and crises

Christian Brothers is a Catholic teaching order and also a classic Australian play by Ron Blair that I saw over the weekend. I’d seen it many years back, at the Adelaide Festival Centre, perhaps when it was first released. I went to a Catholic boys’ school, not Christian Brothers but Jesuit, but I could still see the resonances. It was closer to me then and perhaps for that reason it made more of an impression, but it remains a powerful play. It’s a monologue by an ageing Christian Brother teacher. It’s set in a school room over several lessons. The audience comprises the class, and a chair at the front of the stage represents one student who is a particular frustration for the central character. The monologue describes a now-dated but still profoundly challenging, non-materialist view of the world which Catholicism still represents. But the key personal narrative is a crisis of faith being suffered by the teacher, and imparted to audience and class in an increasingly despairing tone. He’d seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in his teenage years, and this had led to his commitment to the Church and its strict disciplines of poverty, chastity and obedience. Now in later middle age, the teacher is having a crisis of faith. Was it a true apparition? Why had Mary not reappeared over the years? Had he lost his life, lost the opportunity of marriage and children of his own? Profound questions, and potentially very difficult to face. So it was a challenging study of a man in turmoil and bordering on grief. I enjoyed it and was moved by it, even if the resonances are now way further back in my consciousness.

Monologues can be wonderfully powerful. I particularly remember two others from the time I used to frequent the theatre. One told the true story of a group of WW2 German officers left naked in a cellar with no food by the Russian Army. They decided to sacrifice themselves one by one, by lot, so the survivors could live: Teutonic rationality and self-discipline. Unfortunately for the last surviving same officer, this was seen as unbecoming of an officer and he was on trial before the audience as jury. The monologue was his presentation to the court. The other was the actual transcript of Charles Manson’s presentation to the court in his famous Sharon Tate murder case of the late 1960s. I just remember how charismatic was this presentation. It made you realise that his followers were more like the rest of us than we might imagine. Oh, and Krapp’s Last Tape was another monologue, although in a very different, absurdist style.

Great to see that local theatre is taking on these challenging pieces, along with the comedies and the musicals. Bill Boyd was the Christian Brother (and a fellow employee at my workplace), Geoffrey Borny was the director, and Tuggeranong Arts Centre was the location.

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