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Sydney Theatre Company’s Mysteries: Genesis Sydney Theatre Company’s Mysteries: Genesis
photo Brett Boardman

Adam and Eve in turn breed curiosity and defiance for which they are banished from Eden as sinners, doomed to parenting and a profound sense of the loss of direct contact with their maker. The Mysteries: Genesis, is written by Lally Latz and Hilary Bell, directed by Matthew Lutton, Andrew Upton and Tom Wright, and performed by the STC’s new young ensemble, The Residents.

The trio of short plays, based successively around the lives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and then Noah adds up to a lateral re-working of the originals, a blend of The Bible, apocrypha and fancy. The staging resonates with associations with the mediaeval English Mystery Cycles. These were seasonal English pageants of Bible stories performed by craft guild members, mostly on carts, and often executed with fearsome spectacle and not a little humour in the vernacular up until their banning in the 16th century by a newly Protestant monarchy. In the black box Wharf 2 we can choose, in the first and the last plays, to watch seated on the floor or the balcony above, while in the second we can stand on the floor, moving about with the performers. The result is an apt sense of both ritual occasion and informality, of being in a public space to witness a re-telling of tales embedded, for many of us, in our psyches but here made new.

The first play, Adam, Eve, commences in total darkness until dim light reveals a mound of flesh which we then see is a body: God seated, bent over, as if in the act of self-creation. But his creation is already imperfect and rules have to be imposed, first on an ambitious Lucifer: “Hell is your gift if you should break my heart.” Ash pours down on Lucifer, rendering him black, erased: “Hell has no windows.” God admits, “I was dazzled by my own creation” but persists, and goes on to “fill the world with [his] ideas” as the stage floods with polystyrene snow in which the childlike Adam and Eve play. Their co-existence with a big penguin (a performer in a daggy costume) with whom they can communicate confirms their innocence, and that they live at one with nature. But we can also understand the couple’s growing curiosity, especially Eve who has not enjoyed Adam’s direct contact with God: “What was it like to look him in the face?” She wonders,”Is this tree the knowledge of our God?”

As Eve, like the child of an absent parent, yearns for God, the rationale for temptation is offered not by Lucifer but by a Lilith figure: “To reach him you must know him.” Eve’s curiosity extends to asking, “What is behind the stars?” But drinking the juice from a plucked glass apple yields a different truth: Eve declares, “I now know what a man is.” Soon she and Adam are feeling the chill, sense their nakedness and are ashamed. God is punishing, condemning Eve and her heirs to the agonies of childbirth and driving Adam to kill the penguin. From the costume Adam forces a woman and tears off her underwear in a palpable ‘rape of nature.’

Writer Lally Katz and director Matthew Lutton don’t subvert the through-line of the Bible story, the outcomes are given, but test its contradictions by siding with Adam and especially with Eve, portraying them as victims of a God who is himself clearly imperfect, a creator who inadvertantly generates a world of escalating contradictions—innocence/sin, black/white, man/woman, love/hate, man/nature—and who cruelly withdraws his affection. Design and performances are realised with like tension between absolutes, sometimes strikingly, too often awkwardly (as in the de-wigging of Adam and Eve in their transformation into sinning humans), and the text is delivered with a drab, actorly archness contrary to the pop staging.

The second play, Cain, Abel, tells the Bible tale but with some intriguing and some alarming variations alongside thematic continuities with the first play. Of the three it has the most affinity with a Mystery Cycle performance. It’s played out amongst the audience. The actors form a band (replete with penguin) that vividly opens the play and later, as a choral group, sombrely closes it with the same song. The script, with its vivid imagery, contemporary references (Cain finds after the murder that “the locks have been changed”) and couplets that evoke the mediaeval cycle texts. While In the first play, Adam and Eve as characters are inevitably difficult to invest with much human complexity, the tale of Cain’s killing of his brother Abel offers more room to move, especially by taking licence with the Bible story and texturing it with God admitting Cain as a mistake, Eve ackowledging her power (“I like God become creator”), and a tired cigarette puffing, dying Adam still longing for one last sight of his maker. The homecoming Cain is murdered by his daughter and wife (who had become prostitutes during his exile) and God is a hovering, bad tempered commentator in a business suit.

Binary dynamics are again central. Abel is played by a woman and his/her murder is perpetrated with precisely the same kind of sexual brutality as the assault on the penguin in Adam, Eve. The realms of Cain (the too demanding care of the earth) and Abel (the rewarding world of blood, plenty, animal husbandry and Eve’s admiration) are quickly mapped out on the floor with tape, dividing and re-dividing characters and audience. Brett Stiller’s performance is the best in The Mysteries: Genesis: his Cain is sulky, envious, dangerous, but, after the murder and exile, he is darkly and intensely remorseful, recalling his misery and abjection, “scouring through the garbage bins like a possum” and wondering, like Job to come, “Why me?” Tahki Saul, as Seth, brother to Cain and Abel, introduces a new dimension, an amiable, potentially restorative figure in a world God sees as almost iredeemably locked in a cycle of corruption. Tautly scripted and rich with curious apocrypha and invention, strong performances and an engaging use of space, the writer Hilary Bell and director Andrew Upton have engendered a disturbingly lateral account of the arrival of Death in the Bible narrative (though made oddly explicit as a female figure in underwear, her hair pulled down over her face).

Bell and Katz co-wrote the final play, Noah’s Ark, with a much more subversive intent than in the first two. Their Noah is a drugged fantastist, a refugee from the world, hiding on top of a pile of eight mattresses on which God addresses him from a radio and joins him for chats. Out of the mattress ooze his three imagined daughters who share Noah’s desire to punish family and neighbours for their sins against God and to sail away in the coming flood. When not sedating him, Noah’s wife berates the man (not in the comic manner of the mediaeval cycles) to nil effect. He is truly delusional, “All history begins and ends with me.” Even God wonders why Noah has no curiosity about his fate, but appears to long for contact with his last believer, almost reaching out to touch him.

Surround sound torrential rain floods the theatre, and the stack of mattresses spins. As the waters subsides God returns to give Noah mastery over all of nature, declares a long list of taboos (including not eating penguins and kangaroos), and makes a covenant that he will never again destroy mankind. It’s time to multiply, as God and Noah enter into a closed circuit of love, mutually delusional. Noah asks, “So what will we do?” God replies, “If you love me, you’ll be with me forever.” We, however, feel less certain. The prospect of salvation from a global environmental disaster through the grace of God worked through a madman seems distant. If dramatically one dimensional given the totality of the protagonist’s condition, the Noah play was nonetheless fascinatingly subversive and visually potent.

For their first mainstage outing, The Residents performed with conviction and ample ensemble spirit if not always investing sufficient detail in their characterisations, admittedly a challenge with this kind of archetypal material. While adding fuel to the ongoing debate between atheists and believers, The Mysteries: Genesis at the same time perpetuates our fascination with a significant component of western cultural history, not least as a theatrical legacy out of which 16th and 17th century English drama partly sprang. There’s also a notable focus from Bell and Katz on women in these Bible stories—Eve’s justifiable curiosity, nature raped by Adam, Abel as representative of the ‘female’ spirit, and Mrs Noah’s hard-earned recognition of her husband’s delusion.

For a very different visual experience, try the recently published R Crumb comic strip of all the Books of Genesis with text from Robert Alter’s lucid new Bible translations. Although not as outrageous as you’d expect from Crumb, there’s much telling detail that undercuts the aetherial abstractions of standard Bible story illustration with strong historical research and vivid characters who palpably sweat, age and have sex. You can’t keep a ‘good’ myth down, it seems.

Sydney Theatre Company, The Residents, The Mysteries: Genesis, writers Hilary Bell, Lally Katz, directors Matthew Lutton, Andrew Upton, Tom Wright, performers Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, Ursula Mills, Julia Ohannessian, Zindzi Okenyo,?Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul, Brett Stiller, designer Alice Babidge, lighting Paul Jackson, sound design Kingsley Reeve; from Nov 25, 2009; The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R Crumb, 2009

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 46

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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