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Ashton Malcolm and David Williams, Quiet Faith Ashton Malcolm and David Williams, Quiet Faith
photo Heath Britton
A SELF-CONSCIOUS REJOINDER TO THE NOISINESS OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT ON THE ONE HAND AND THE SO-CALLED ‘NEW ATHEISTS’ ON THE OTHER, DAVID WILLIAMS’ QUIET FAITH WEAVES ITS MEEK PRESENCE FROM THE REAL LIFE THREADS OF THE FAITHFUL ORDINARY AND A BURGEONING CHRISTIAN ACTIVISM AS EMBLEMATISED BY THE ‘LOVE MAKES A WAY’ PROTEST MOVEMENT.

In his familiar manner, Williams recorded interviews with 20 Australian Christians of varying ages and denominations in preparation for the work and it’s their words, replicated verbatim down to every last, drawn-out “um” and “ah”, that constitute Quiet Faith’s text. The conversations Williams held with interviewees emerged from three questions: “How would you describe your journey of faith? How does faith manifest itself in your everyday life? And what do you think is, or should be, the relationship between religion and politics?”

Reviewing Williams’ program notes now, I’m put in mind of George Pell’s terse response to David Marr’s recent Quarterly Essay, The Prince: “Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.” In that case, Pell was shutting the door on the possibility of a non-believer grasping such a thing; in Quiet Faith, it is Williams’ avowed intent to open it, to let a little light and air into the largely internalised beliefs of Christianity’s silent majority. It is, seemingly, a project that has been conceived with atheists and agnostics in mind, those who, like both Marr and myself, are more at home critiquing the Christian religion’s institutional failings and archly conservative social activist agenda than engaging with the views and lived experiences of everyday believers.

Williams is joined onstage by just one other performer, the significantly younger Ashton Malcolm, whose performance style provides a sometimes-jarring contrast with Williams whose approach is mimetic, soft-voiced and poker-faced, shot through with, no doubt, many of the same false starts and fillers he has detected in the responses of his interview subjects. Malcolm’s, conversely, is more embroidered, less attentive to the faltering rhythms of ordinary speech; a clear persona emerges that is warm, amused and defiantly daggy. Williams’ performance, moreso than Malcolm’s, seems calculated to drive home the dissimilarity between grassroots Christianity’s quiet emphasis on the pursuit of good works and the evangelistic social conservatism of high-profile Christian politicians like Cory Bernardi and Bob Day. Bernardi, Day and their ilk—and this, of course, is the point—seem worlds apart from the reflective, softly-spoken small-l liberals on whose words Quiet Faith is built.

“I would have said probably 10 years ago,” one of Williams’ interviewees told him, “it would have been unthinkable for a Christian in the conservative churches to not vote Liberal.” Now, such people are not only not voting Liberal in significant numbers, but are staging sit-ins at the offices of ministers on both sides of politics in protest at Australia’s continued, bipartisan policy of offshore detention of refugees.

In addition to providing a useful sketch of this shift in the relationship between religion and politics in Tony Abbott’s Australia, Quiet Faith also foregrounds the minutiae—the hymns and prayers, the church services and greetings of peace—with which the faithful daily ritualise their beliefs. Set designer Jonathan Oxlade’s rings of wooden pews, gorgeously lit by Chris Petridis’ suspended halo of lights, establish a tone halfway between intimacy and ethereality that is subtly redolent of places of worship. The performers move among, sit beside and address their dialogue directly to audience members as candles flicker here and there. At times we are called upon to stand and sing or recite—“Amazing Grace,” The Lord’s Prayer—while at other times Bob Scott’s immersive sound design, incorporating sacred organ and choir music and ringing bells, surges and then drains away. We hear, too, whispering voices: muted, indistinguishable waves of human speech that might be prayers or verses of scripture.

Finally, Malcolm and Williams embody two ministers as they debate the baptism of a stillborn baby, an act expressly forbidden by their doctrine. It is the only palpably dramatic moment of the evening and serves, inadvertently, to point up the insipidness of the preceding hour. There is no doubting the production’s elegant visual and aural design or the appeal of its careful, convincing restatement of progressive Christian values, but in its quest to achieve a meditative atmosphere Quiet Faith tends towards the simply soporific. More forgiving were the audience members who, judging by their post-performance responses, had had a Christian schooling or upbringing. Over them, at least, the work seemed to leave a pall of happy nostalgia—a mark of the successfulness of its verisimilitude, if not its ability to fully engage the uninitiated.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 47

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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