The idea of retelling biblical stotries is nothing new. During the infancy of European theatre, the Mystery plays were popular for showing highlights of the Bible. Much later, during the 17th century, John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost would – contrary to author’s intentions – spur an interest in ‘the anti-hero’ and biblical stories from a revisionist perspective. People over the centuries have questioned aspects of the Bible that they’ve found problematic for various reasons. Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson, Tristan Bernays’ play Testament not only addresses some of the ‘problematic’ passages, but also give a voice to ‘minor characters’ in the Bible whose own thoughts and opinions weren’t given in depth originally.
By setting all three of his stories within the Bible Belt of present day America, Bernays’ biblical figures have one foot set in the realm of ‘faith’ and the other in the world of 21st century attitudes. In between each monologue, vocalist Ivy Davies sings a suitably soulful tune as a way for the audience to ‘decompress’ and take stock of what’s transpired before the show moves on.
The evening begins with the story of Isaac, his father Abraham… and the sacrifice. Bernays himself takes on the role of the adult Isaac who is seeking psychiatric help. His father is a ‘man of God’ who keeps on trying to build bridges with him, but to no avail. In frustration, Isaac is asked by his wife why he won’t ever see his father, to which Bernays relates the tale of the near-death experience he had many years before… While I’m sure this play’s interpretation of the Isaac-sacrifice scenario is inspired by the Ryan Gosling movie The Believer, this doesn’t detract from Bernays’ intentions to have emotionally truthful characters.
The next part of the evening is inspired by another of Abraham’s relatives – his nephew Lot or to be more specific, Lot’s daughters. The original tale involved the ‘wicked’ cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which God passed judgement on. Before they are destroyed, Lot and his family are told to flee and not look back… In Bernays’ reimagined version, the town Lot’s family flees from is more akin to Ferguson, Missouri with its police brutality, etc. Following what happened to his wife, Lot – like Isaac – undergoes psychological changes. But his grief and depression takes him to some dark places indeed… Peta Cornish and Celeste Dodwell who play the daughters are Southern belles: jovial, content and big fans of Dolly Parton! However, when their conversation veers towards their father, that’s when they are more circumspect. While the sisters’ version of the tale deviates from orthodoxy, the way they and their father behave regards their ‘transgression’ makes more sense to our secular sensibilities.
The final tale of the evening focuses on the thief on the cross. Actually the original tale had two – one who was receptive to Christ’s message of forgiveness and one who was hostile towards Him. Played by Simon Manyonda, the latter ‘thief’ here is someone who life has treated unfairly, depriving him of his ‘legitimate’ job to provide for his wife and daughter, and driven him to desperate acts. From his perspective, God is the one who should apologise to him and walk in his shoes… Of all the performances of the evening, this one – driven by anger and frustration – is one that has a universal resonance.
In Jewish folkore there is a tale about the Golem, a clay creature that’s reshaped and brought to life by the power of words. In many ways this analogy reflects what Bernays has done with Testament – taken the essence of millennia-old tales and with a subtle change of emphasis, coaxed their inherent emotional truths to the surface.
Testament ran at the Vault Festival in February 2017.