The Christian Brothers

(Sydney Theatre Company)


It should really be called the Christian Brother. It’s about one man, a senior secondary school teacher and member of the Irish teaching order which has dominated working class Catholic boys’ education in Australia. The one-hander, set in a bleak 1950s classroom, takes the form of the teacher’s reminiscences and interactions with his unseen pupils.

A personal note. As a university student a few years before this play was written, I answered an ad at the uni labour exchange for a half-time teacher at a Christian Brothers school. The fact that the school was prepared to let an untrained 20-year-old loose on the Sixth Grade says much for the standards and possibly desperation then prevailing in Catholic education, particularly in the poorer schools. But in my brief time at the chalk-face and in observing overworked and often stressed colleagues I certainly saw much that was recognisable in playwright Ron Blair’s portrayal of a Brother. It resonated with many who had been through the system at the play’s first airing in the 1970s, depicting a culture that had little changed throughout the century.

The past few decades have, however, seen a quantum leap of change. I saw the current production with my son who was educated at a Christian Brothers school in the 1990s. He was quite baffled at the domineering, eccentric behavior and religiosity of the character, who occupies a world that has almost entirely passed away.

Blair’s script is outstanding, establishing and developing character as well as building momentum. Sympathetic in many ways to the brothers and their lives, it captures the poignancy of their regrets as well as the security and rewards they derived from within their world. It also probed the nature of vocation to the religious life. Many plays concern an horrific past experience which has traumatised the character. In this play the character is traumatised by a beautiful experience, which provides a sense of underlying mystery.

Peter Carroll as the brother does a brilliant job. It is a characterisation of depth and richness. He captures the brother’s eccentric personality, his dedication to his work, his love of poetry and literature, his devotion to the faith, contrasted with his pent-up frustrations, his anger and an uncontrollable temper with unpredictable and dangerous fits of rage. Carroll gives us an ageing brother seeking validation of his life’s work, craving respect and appreciation from his students past and present, and fearful of their and possibly his loss of faith.

His skill in mesmering the audience is uncanny. The theatre is absolutely hushed as the brother recounts events of high emotional intensity the torture of Christ, his adoration of the Virgin Mary, his memories of old boys who fell in the War. The tension is contrasted with many moments of humor, where we laugh both with and at the brother.

It is a tribute to Carroll that he is so successfully able to reprise this role at the age of 60. The character as written must surely be a man in his 30s or 40s typical of the era. But Carroll vigorously enacts the brother’s physical outbursts and vigorous actions like bashing the blackboard and kicking a football and, in particular, the punishing and potentially homicidal treatment of a hapless pupil.

It’s a moving and thought-inducing theatrical experience a tribute to director John Bell as well as Carroll and Blair. Quibbles. This has in the past been performed as part of a double bill. While one wouldn’t reasonably expect an extra minute of Carroll’s energy, the hour and 10 minutes running time is rather on the brief side for a show commanding $45 a ticket. On the other hand, it was a relief to extricate myself from the gallery seating which seemed too much like a school desk circa 1950.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 19th February 2003)