Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam

Photo by Noni Carroll
The National Theatre of Parramatta, presents, JESUS WANT ME FOR A SUNBEAM, adapted from a novella by Peter Goldsworthy, by Steve Rodgers, at the Riversides Theatres, Parramatta. 18th - 27th October.

JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, is a new Australian play from Stevie Rodgers, adapted from a 1993 novella, by Peter Goldsworthy. It appeared, first, in a collection of stories, LITTLE DEATHS.

Linda (Emma Jackson) meets Rick (Justin Smith) while at university. They fall into an intense (obsessive) love and marry quickly, while still at uni. They study - it seems literature is at the centre of it, they read some Steinbeck for us) - they find a 'house', they have jobs and then they have a child, Ben (Liam Nunan). Linda becomes obsessively in love with her son, and concerns herself with the difficulty, problem, as to whether she has the capacity to love another child. She does, however, have another one. A girl, Emma, affectionately known as 'Wol' - as in owl, as in, I suppose, a wise owl. Mum has her bond with Ben. Dad has his bond with 'Wol' - Mum, dad, son and daughter, a perfect family unit says their priest (Mark Lee). These parents in a diligent if not a more than overprotective way, go so far as to throw out the television so that the children won't be 'polluted' by real life influences. Linda becomes particularly upset at a television report of a family murder and suicide. They, instead, read books, have family picnics, play games, and go to church - an idyllic family unit in a self-protective cocoon.

Unfortunately, 'Wol' contracts leukaemia, as a young child, - a cancer. Why, asks Linda, does God allow so much suffering? What have I, we, done wrong? Trauma blindsides this family - hubris catches the family out! In her bewildered shock, quandary, she blames God, even her own dad, Grandpa (Mark Lee), who still smokes and could have polluted the child. Doctor Eve (Valerie Bader) guides the family and the child through a long bout of treatments. The ups and downs of recovery and recidivism take the family on a spiral of emotional grief. It tests and stretches their love bonds. Ben, at one stage overhears his parents discussing a family euthanasia scheme. The ultimate plan that they come to is for Rick to inject his daughter with an overdose, and then himself, so that they can both meet Jesus together.

One of the last scenes of the play is to watch mum hugging daughter on one side of the bed, and Ben holding dad on the other side, while dad lethally injects his daughter and then himself.

Adapter, Steve Rodgers, in his program notes says:
JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM is about love and grief. Like all great stories, it revels in the grey areas of acceptability - what is too much love and how do we recover from an idyllic family love when its cruelly and fatally interrupted?"
The Director, Darren Yap, who commissioned the play, says:
         SUNBEAM asks us - if there is a God, why would he allow so much suffering? And the bigger    question for me - to what lengths would a parent go to protect their child?

Apparently, in this play (and novella), one could go to the lengths of murder and suicide, with surviving family being complicit witnesses - which is a crime, and has secular punishments as a consequence, besides the psychological trauma of the survivors, particularly, for the young Ben - all motivated by an obsessive (unhealthy) selfish love, and all in the faith and hope, in a religious myth of an after-life, reduced to a vision of Jesus waiting to greet Dad and Daughter in the heavens, whilst otherwise ignoring all rational evidence that death is an inevitable norm - with all consciousness evaporating - and the teachings of Christianity that murder and suicide is a Mortal Sin and only Hell and Satan would be greeting you. Apparently, we can ignore the evidential proofs that death is simply the destiny of all living species, and that its timing of conclusion being the variable for each individual.

The play has little to no debate on the struggle between faith and reality. There is no steady eye on the dilemma of the surviving family - what of Ben's mental health, or the effect on the Grandparents, for instance? Little discourse on the ethics of it all. It is, rather, a step-by-step showing of the decline of heroic 'Wol' and the anguished family in their hot-house cocoon of 'love', and who come to a devastating set of decisions.

There is much sentiment and for some of the audience it was a 'weepy' experience. For me, I was in a state of shock. Later, I found myself in a state of bewildered, subdued, anger. Did one need to be a parent of children to appreciate this play? A parent of a particular kind? What does this play truly say? Did it debate any of the immoral acts we witness - murder, suicide? Debate any of the beliefs of the participants? Is their love a healthy love?

All the actors give good performances. The Design elements: The Lighting by Verity Hampson and the Set and Costume Design by Emma Vine are striking (although that towering centre bookcase, stuffed with books, in the centre of this household, climbing to the 'heavens', surely must have been full of a wisdom that should have tempered, informed, the behaviours of Rick and Linda, if they had read any of them - its presence became an irony of educated ignorance for me, probably not the Designer's intention). The Composition by Max Lambert and Sean Peter, teetered on the edge of sentimentality and Mr Yap's Direction was fairly standard in its staging choices.

Peter Goldsworthy was once a Doctor. The novella sits in the genres of Domestic FICTION and Christian FICTION, according to my research.

JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, is surely an aphorism of some Sentimental FICTION?

N.B. Just my usual observation that the writer of the source of this play/work has no Bio-graphical notes in the program. Why are the writers ignored? (Shrug shoulders.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish Kevin I had read your review of JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM before going to see it. I was
amazed by it: how did such a poor piece of playwriting get into wonderful Belvoir? As you say, none of the
issues was explored, bitty scenes piled on each other, the characterisations were shallow - but no fault of the actors, who did what they could with dreadful material. Loved your comment about the books: clearly the parents had not read anything of worth that encouraged them to think and debate. And frankly I found the
last scene offensive in its sentimentality. Yes the play stayed with me: and the more it stayed, the angrier I got.How could such important material be dealt with in such a trite, superficial way! What has stayed with me
longest is the terrible legacy left to son Ben. Abandonment by his father. Proof his sister was the only important child. And given the awful statistics of how male suicide tends to be repeated in families, how is this likely to play out for him? Thank you for giving me space to vent.