By John Pielmeier
It has all the elements of a gripping whodunit: a baby who died soon after its birth in a lonely convent has been found shoved in a wastepaper basket. Sister Agnes, a naïve young novice, has blocked all memories of the birth – let alone the baby’s conception – from her mind: “Everybody wants to talk about the baby but… I never saw the baby so I can’t talk about the baby because I don’t believe in the baby.”
Is it another virgin birth? Inevitably suspicions are winked and nudged in the direction of the parish priest, although the final scenes exonerate him of involvement. Was the baby murdered? The courts bring in a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Julie Bray) to ascertain if Sister Agnes is mentally sound enough to stand trial. Agnes entered the convent in her teens and knows nothing of sex or birth though Dr. Livingstone’s investigations reveal an abusive upbringing. The power struggle between the psychiatrist and Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, fiercely protective of her simple-minded, fragile novice, creates most of the play’s dynamics.
It seems churlish to quibble that this production is a touch bland; after all, Nicole Glover plays a simple-minded young girl whose sing-song monotone is indicative of her state of denial. Yet she is known for her glorious singing voice; in this production, collaboration with the Queensland Conservatorium of Music students utilises Susan Punshon’s composition, soprano Rebecca Del Valle with sound recording from Clarke Matthews and Matthew Duncan. Perhaps Agnes’s escapism allows little scope for anything more than hand-wringing and body-rocking when pushed out of her comfort zone.
Does the blandness come from the relatively static movement? One can hardly expect a wide range of gestures as both nuns are restricted by the submissive convention of hiding their hands in their habits. The three characters are placed in a relatively simple set, with different interactions highlighted by a spotlight in three areas of the stage.
Although Julie Bray projects passion and frustration into her investigations and reveals some vulnerability as revelations tap back into her own past family tragedy, she could have infused more warmth into the character. More contrast between her reflective moments and the combative scenes with the mother superior would add depth. The latter, Bernadette Smith, projects the inexorable strength of character of the role but also her genuine concern and love when admitting her own relationship as Agnes’ aunt.
Any company willing to stage performances in a busy Festival month are surely brave and hopefully have a trusty following. It’s a competent production, obviously crafted with diligence and deserved a larger audience.
Directed by Christopher Sargent
Playing until July 29, Friday – Saturday at 7.30 pm
Duration: 100 minutes, 20-minute interval