Review: The Chapel Perilous (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 25 – May 27, 2017
Playwright: Dorothy Hewett
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Courtney Bell, Alison Chambers, Julia Christensen, Meg Clarke, Jasper Garner-Gore, Brett Heath, Madelaine Osborn, Tom Matthews, James Wright
Image © Bob Seary

Theatre review
Defiant by nature, Sally faces a real challenge, having to live in the conservative times of 1930s Australia. In Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous, we observe a young woman trying to be her own person, not hurting a soul in the process, but who constantly suffers injustice and oppression from a society that demands her gendered subjugation. Sally is a symbol of feminism, although she seems to be unfamiliar with the concept herself, unable to comprehend the futility of her insatiable need to make herself an object of desire to men who offer her little. She is not a hero, but she is like many of us, when we find ourselves motivated by pure desire, unafraid to want.

It is a dynamic production that Carissa Licciardello directs, with adventurous and vivid interpretations of scenes coinciding effectively with clever use of space. It is noteworthy that Kyle Jonsson’s set and Martin Kinnane’s lights are beautifully rendered, for a show that looks remarkably polished. There are moments however, where the politics of the piece becomes muddy, probably due to a conflict in ideologies between personnel and text, and the delivery of meanings end up less poignant than imagined.

Julia Christensen is a very exuberant Sally. The actor is extremely animated with her portrayal of the central role, bringing to the stage a sense of boundless energy, but that continuous vigour can turn alienating. Like the character she plays, Christensen has a hard time endearing herself to everyone in her presence. The charming duo of Alison Chambers and Brett Heath play figures of authority, with excellent nuance and flair. Both give commanding performances in what are admittedly less complex parts, leaving strong impressions in spite of that simplicity.

Sally has no compatriots in her struggle, so the chances of her emerging victorious are close to none. All of society objects to her behaviour, and when a person realises that she is one against the world, hope can only give way to hopelessness. The sadness in The Chapel Perilous however, belongs to the past. What we have today are radically improved circumstances. Feminists now join in a movement that gains momentum everyday, and although we feel the pain of our wronged protagonist (for we have experienced similar transgressions), we know that progress is taking place. Those whose resistance had counted little, are to be mourned, and those who continue to blaze our trails, must be celebrated.