Text, music, soundscape and set are all active participants in Declan Greene’s I am a Miracle – Chapter 3 Ritual// Extinction at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse.
The work opens with a short monologue from a condemned man, who admits to the crime with which he is charged. He is nervous, frightened, and unstable. He pleads for certainty – grasping alternately at hope of a stay of execution, and hope of the eternal.
What follows is apparently an unrelated scene – a colonial era Dutch soldier is sent on a desperate mission through various consequences of “for God, King and country” – plundering of other races, and the assumed right to take slaves. On realizing that his leader’s purpose in all of this is pure profit, he is somewhat sanguine, allowing that man has a weakness, rather than admitting that the entire project is about building wealth for some on the suffering of many. Trapped in a situation, he tries to use his accidentally gained fortune to purchase a woman he loves out of slavery.
The next scene is a contemporary domestic situation where it soon becomes apparent that one partner is suffering the beginnings of dementia. We see the relationship change as they both become emotionally withdrawn. Love gives way to the increasing toxicity of the management of a human life, while the loss of self becomes a tightening prison for both of them. Then, his freedoms are curtailed one at a time. The violent outbursts of frustration toward the end of this scene are heartbreaking.
Finally, we are back with the condemned man writing a letter to his son, not justifying his actions, but explaining why life will probably push him too far in the same way – why the patterns are unlikely to be any different for him.
The reflection I was left with is about the perpetual and cyclic nature of institutionalized inequality. The power structures of societies and the subjugation of others seem to lead inevitably to crime and punishment. In one scene religious beliefs are used to justify the enslavement and maltreatment of other races. The world is divided into human and “not human”. That our protagonist in I am a Miracle yearns throughout for the eternal in the same way the enslavers do highlights the hypocrisy of those religious justifications. Though the excuses for treating others badly vary with time and place, it’s a theme that hasn’t gone away.
Bert LaBonté plays an everyman – we feel that this is the same man transposed to different situations. His essential humanity allows us to feel claustrophobia and outrage as the various imprisonments of each scene close around his character. His is a portrayal of unflinching truth.
Melita Jurisic on the other hand covers the ranges of all of the other characters, to breathtaking effect- the depth of nuance in her acting is remarkable. Both performers are truly powerful in this piece.
The set is vitally important, opening in a scene of ash grey – a flat cut open as a portal in front of a vast curtain. It resembles an anonymous flight lounge, but this space is occupied by many mismatched chairs in various arrangements of order and disarray, and an upturned table. There is already an implied rich history of both organisation and violence in the space. These pieces become more than just locations for action, they contribute to it. Later in the piece the curtain moves forward, enveloping the set and performers in an action that recalls clouds of choking dust accompanying the collapse of a large building. The platform containing the apartment revolves, gradually making the living space seem more and more contained, and the lives within become increasingly trapped, we feel claustrophobia for a life trapped in a growing loss of self.
David Chisholm’s subtly beautiful score presented music in several forms. The solo soprano vocalises were exquisitely sung by Hana Lee Crisp, who – while listed as an operatic soprano – employs a spare tone, evoking something between a religious purity and a natural rather than theatrical expression of Chisholm’s exquisite melodies. Her role throughout is the eternal – the comfort of a mother’s lullaby, the plainchant melodies of religious yearning as the characters each yearn for release from the tortures of their situations.
There were vocal duets in a similar style. The vocal trio piece fascinated me, reminding me initially of Landini, and then there were tumbling first inversion chords echoing the sunniness of early renaissance polyphony, becoming more disturbing as the harmonies became as restlessly dissonant and unstable as those of Gesualdo. All three performers met the musical challenges.
The soundscape is based on an intriguing blur of boundaries. Music and sound effects, the natural and the synthetic work together in a relationship both sophisticated and organic. What begins as a sound like strong wind among trees morphs into choral effects, without losing the former character. Extremely low bass drones change constantly, creating shifts in tension as the waves of difference in pitch alter in speed and intensity. Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design is subtle and nuanced. The use of the space in a sonic sense is stunning – sounds swirl around the room in startlingly natural ways, and there are sudden incredibly local effects – I felt sure one voice was coming from just behind my right shoulder at one point.
I wondered how well I might grasp I am a Miracle, having not seen chapters 1 and 2, and coming to the piece with little personal awareness of its elements – how hard might I have to work to comprehend it? This is storytelling in a most transparent form – it speaks directly to the heart, and here the performance elements of text, music, soundscape, movement, and set design all support that in the same apparently effortless language. This of course is testament to the remarkable depth of thought that clearly underlies every aspect of Declan Greene’s writing, Mattew Lutton’s direction, Marg Horwell and Paul Jackson’s design – and the performance.
An almost full house on opening night showed an awed, sensitive reaction to the work – and then finally vast enthusiasm for the piece. For me, I am a Miracle is an unforgettable night in the theatre, and surely a potent catalyst for change in the way we deal with those with whom we share the planet.
I am a Miracle – Chapter 3 Ritual// Extinction plays at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until August 9.
Photo credit: Pia Johnson