Presented in the appropriately stripped back and church-like setting of VAULT’s Pit, Tristan Bernays’ Testament aims to explore the “dark underside” of Biblical tales in a modern setting – although darkness is arguably quite foregrounded in the original text!
Beginning with two Old Testament stories – Isaac’s (Bernays) therapy couch account of his father Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice him to God, and Lot’s daughters’ (Peta Cornish, Celeste Dodwell) tale of their escape from Sodom – the reasoning behind setting Testament in the United States isn’t immediately apparent. Although the US invites such scrutiny by clinging to its identity as a Christian country with perhaps even more tenacity than the UK to its secular one, these tales do not have a particularly American sensibility, and could easily be situated anywhere.
Decidedly the trickiest segment, Lot’s daughters (nameless in the Bible and nameless here) prove distressingly one-note in their writing, and it grates significantly that of all the accounts of women in the Bible, the one chosen here is one of sexual violence. True, Bernays sets out to portray darkness, and it should not be discounted that he chooses to invert the depiction in Genesis of these young women essentially date raping their father to the (much more likely) paternally perpetrated incestuous rape recounted here… but there are so many more characters to chose from if you are only going to give one story over to women’s voices, and sexual violence is feeling ever more and more like narrative shorthand for female character development.
Esther averts the execution of herself and her people by her own husband; Rachel has to deal with every woman around being substituted into her husband’s bed because she hasn’t conceived a child; Naomi is displaced from her home by famine and loses her entire family, except for her daughter in law, Ruth. I don’t want to shortchange Bernays, and there is merit to exploring the fate of unnamed characters, but this was a frustrating watch. These women, in namelessness and event, are no more than the tale of their father.
The third, and by far the most successfully realised piece, relocates the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus to death row – alongside a prisoner who seems to attract a great deal of media attention and “gets more mail than Santa.” Simon Manyonda’s engaging portrayal of a penitent (of his crimes, not to God) thief highly suspicious of the cell neighbour offering forgiveness and everlasting life sits well as a tale both ancient and modern – an indictment of the cruelty of the death penalty, and an unsettling account of the power of religion and its propensity for preying on the vulnerable. “Makes you small in here, and that’s when He comes to get you.”
All three tales are woven together by Ivy Davies’ beautiful bluesy spirituals, lending an almost reverent atmosphere to proceedings beneath the neon glare of Verity Johnson’s cross – which frowns down upon on cast and audience alike.
Testament makes for a mixed bag, but a thoroughly engaging watch, and the testimony style delivery is a clever conceit, deftly emulating and subverting the rapturous tones of modern evangelical meetings.
Testament is on until 26th February 2017 at the Vaults. Click here for more details.