Directed by Carissa Licciardello
542 King Street, Newtown
Season: 25 April – 27 May
The Chapel Perilous is a semi-autobiographical play, crafted by Dorothy Hewett as she looks back on her own life, beginning in the years of WWII. Her fictional self, Sally Banner, is a wondrous character, yet is hemmed in by religious figures and conservative views, debilitating gender stereotypes and the general fears that shroud people’s view of her as she surges boldly into life. Carissa Licciardello has a strong vision for this work, bringing engagement and creative nuance to what is a rather long and at points, abstract play. With a lively ensemble and strong performances across the board, The Chapel Perilous highlights some of the shackles that with we laden young women, and the wreckage that results.
Julia Christensen is wildly charismatic and fiercely independent as Sally. This is awesome. She builds a cheeky rapport with the audience that gets us on-side with her everyday mishaps and defiances. As a result of this brilliant independence, however, is the feeling that Sally really doesn’t need to fall in love, or need anyone except for herself – and yet the play’s narrative details her string of romantic relationships. Christensen’s chemistry with some of the cast members with whom she is meant to have close relationships doesn’t quite feel natural. Tom Matthews takes on the task of playing all four of Sally’s male lovers. Whilst initially a little confusing, I noticed as a play proceeded I could tell which lover Matthews was playing before he had spoken a word. It’s apparent that the physicality of his characterisations has undergone effective development. Through Licciardello’s choice to cast the lovers in this way, Sally’s repeated inclination to choose impotent and unfulfilling relationships is made clear. All those guys are really much of a muchness.
I really enjoyed the ensemble scenes that employed song and movement to engage, and often create a startling eeriness. Whilst sometimes buzzing with excitement and uplifting the spirit of the piece, the ensemble also embodies the nasty culture that sneers at a young woman like Sally, delighting as she stumbles over the traps it sets out for her. Brett Heath and Alison Chambers each play two roles, paired as Sally’s Father and Mother, as well as the Canon and Headmistress at Sally’s school. Each personify an overbearing and undermining presence in Sally’s life. Licciardello has seen them adopt a near hysteric style that is unusual, yet captivating. Chambers is terrifying in some scenes, and plain vile in others. And yet, she never falters into stereotype or one-dimensional villainy. She’s a bewildering force on stage. Kyle Jonsson’s production design strikingly frames the play’s proceedings, a vast archway standing over the stage. At points glowing, the arch and the sturdy table that sits in the centre of the stage almost has a ritualistic aesthetic, like the lamb to slaughter - Sally as society’s sacrifice.
While Hewett’s play is probably a little long for the contemporary attention span and a little repetitive in its narrative, Licciardello’s imagining of the work really does breathe brilliant life into it. The themes and constricting forces underlined by Hewett remain hugely pertinent today – this could be seen as a testament to the insight of her writing, or as an indictment of our era. Likely both. Sally Banner’s story of self-actualisation in spite of oppressive movements from every side enables audiences to both appreciate the tumultuous journey that still lies ahead, as well as revel in Sally’s radiant strength. Let’s emulate that.