Joan, Again – Paul Gilchrist and the weight of our personal narrative. (Theatre Review)
Subtlenuance in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company
Old Fitzroy Theatre
The nature of the story and the narrative is at the heart of Paul Gilchrist’s excitingly experimental work Joan Again, a piece of theatre that takes the very bold and contemporary decision to pin itself down to a historical moment, and remove itself from that moment at the same time. The play defies many conventions, with language both modernised and historicised, modern ideals gleaned from the ancient illiterate as if they are undocumented inevitable wisdom, the world as a collected hotch-potch of philosophies, dreams, hopes, miseries and darkness shrouded in the dual forces of the domesticated narrative of the day-to-day and the lofty ambitions of each human individuals striving for a place in the overarching divine collective narrative. It’s a brilliant play, written in dull, witless times hoping to excite an enormous intellectual exuberance that Sydney is tragically lacking. Wittgensteinian in scope (see Wittgenstein’s writings on language games for a heads up on where Gilchrist is going here) it melds and melts all the competing philosophies of our day, until the whirlpool becomes its own frenzy and has no place to go other than an outburst of frenetic violence. There is a truth here, lying amid all those ideas, all that obsessive thinking, that explodes out of us in the terrible things we do to each other, and like our flaccid governments, Gilchrist keeps the violence that will save us for an off stage narrative, knowing full well we can’t yet face that which we subconsciously create.
Joan Again is highly experimental in its nature, cutting into so many expectations of theatre and what theatre is supposed to do. More like a societal mirror than any play I’ve seen – ever – Joan Again eschews every kind of subtlety (despite the production companies promise inherent in its name “Subtlenuance”) in favor of the tumultuous passions of simply living the most ordinary of lives. How many women have pretended to be Jeanne d’Arc? At least three I know of in my lifetime and that doesn’t include the period I did it myself. How many of us have faked being special, wanted it so bad we strove to invent it, refusing a mundane every day, that never really existed, because Gilchrist’s terrifying truth is that everything you can possibly be, have, say or do IS happening to you and IS in the moment you exist right now. Alone we are an ardent enormity. We do give speeches (rarely written as well as Gilchrist’s) and we do use our political ideals to format and invent a narrative that lets us know we are real. Gilchrist pits women against men, Church against State, passivity against action, independent thought against compliance, people against politicians, spiritual hope against a rational really real and Whitman’s giant yawp against God’s still small voice in a turbulent, exhausting preachy, speechy, fecund vibrancy that ends with an act of explosive violence that despite all the narrative confronts, becomes the only absolute truth in the end. The only true silence is death, and the only true path to silence is to administer a horrible death. Think of the experience common to male murderers and thieves, that never was their erection stronger or more potent than when a human creature trembled at the pointed end of the knife they wield. This is who we are, says Paul Gilchrist. Take a long, hard look in the mirror.
As I said above, technically, a play like Joan Again confronts many of our theatrical expectations, playing with our day-to-day, refusing to blend appropriately into expectation. It looks like a period piece, but early on in the dialogue, its comedy and irony refuse a conceptualization pitting Rachel Scane’s costumes and set against the contemporary in Gilchrist’s writing. Characterisation and performances, such as the wily, modern ‘bad girl’ in Bonnie Kellett’s Bernadette pitted against the otherworldly ancient quiet ecstasy in Kit Bennett’s Therese (a saint in the making if ever there was one) are not accidents, Gilchrist forcing a confront with our expectant recognition of the tropes of theatre against an all too human reality he has a potent knack for bringing to the stage. This is theatre for the every-man, theatre as it once was, a pure exuberant vibrant life we recognise, vied against a high-minded passion for theatre of the philosophical where the absurd (Sylvia Keays’ Joan is impossibly abstract and absolutely not to be taken for a really real) and the ideal clash. The every-man wins, but Gilchrist makes no apologies for this, refusing to court the high-minded even as he seems to be accommodating them. As a high-minded self-confessed theatre nerd, the refusal of my own personal brand of “knowledge” pissed me off, even as Gilchrist and his cast were able to pull me into their embrace. Joan Again is unapologetically about the woman-in-the-street. Intellectuals can get fucked.
The lynch pin performances are the great triumvirate of Helen Tonkin’s Isabelle, Lynden Jones impossibly, deliciously smarmy Cardinal Theobold (my goodness that man has a talent for the intellectually superior and yet dark-soul-nasty man – the kind of “bad boy” who always got me in as a wayward young woman) and Sylvia Keays separate, dissociated Joan. The three confront each other from entirely separate positions, never including the others self narrative in their interpretation, and yet essential to each other in their own design. It’s a fascinating idea to put the myth, the powerful and the frustratedly powerless in a room and let them duke it out, though we all know one of them must be sacrificed and even though we’ve seen it hundreds of times, when it happens it is still a great surprise. Helen Tonkin has probably the biggest challenge of the play, because she has to bring life to many of Gilchrist’s speeches, and she does so with a mounting frustration, incorporating women we all know in our aunts, mothers, sisters, wives and friends. Tonkin’s Isabelle is a body upon which history stamps a narrative it refuses and then has to deal with, and Tonkin includes all of this in a great performance. She is pitted against Keays’ Joan, a woman who takes refuge in an ideal to keep her safe. The pair light up the stage together, forging a kind of suspense that holds us breathless, because even today, we don’t know which story will win.
Kitty Hopwood’s Marie is the boiling away wife, determined to save her husband from himself, her husband being the aggressively frustrated “male” in James Collette’s Gerard. Both have lots of wonderful lines, and are important characters (Gilchrist loves actors, and gives them all lots and lots to do) in the building blocks of our daily lives. When I say Joan Again is an every-man’s play, it is Marie and Gerard, both imbued with their own kind of beauty and their own brand of evil, who anchor the play in the day-to-day. Hopwood and Collette maintain their characters strengths grounded in this real, working well off each other. Rounding out the cast is Ted Crosby’s Father Berthold and Dave Kirkham’s Felix, who provide one of the most delicious subtexts, with one man capitulating to the priesthood out of ambition and the other out of fear. The interactions of both cast a shadow over a community that ends up obliterating the sun, and as I have already stated, it is this obstruction that we see all too clearly in our lives today. Both actors bring everything to their roles, so that this idea is fully formed, pulsing beneath the overt nature of the political narrative.
Joan Again is that rare piece of theatre that feeds meat to the general public as well as wine to the passionate theatre-nerd. You can grab your tickets here.