OK, let’s face it. Any play that has a tribute to Dolly Parton halfway through was going to win me over even before she saved the world by inventing the vaccine.
Testament places some of the Bible’s most interesting bit part players in a modern setting and gives them centre stage. The unrepentant thief; the daughters of Lot, Isaac, the son Abraham nearly murdered on the orders of God. Each gets to tell not simply the part of the story we already know, but the impact it had on them as bystanders, as participants, as victims.
This is a hybrid show. Part play, part short film. Unlike many filmed plays, this has a real filmic sensibility. It uses the techniques available rather than simply pointing a camera at the actors as they speak. In fact, each section has its own style. For Isaac, as we establish the therapy group setting, the camera pans the group. For Lot’s daughters, the two hander is often seen in the reaction of one sister to the words of the other. Finally for the nervy Anthony the thief, jump cuts as he narrates his fight with God.
Director Lucy Jane Atkinson hasn’t worked much in film before but this is an assuredly slick production. She doesn’t try to do too much – the techniques above are subtle – but she does understand what to do with the tools at her disposal. All of which makes Testament significantly more watchable than those online plays that simply try to replicate the audience’s static experience.
At its heart Testament is play about fathers, sons and a whole lot of ghosts (yes there are daughters in it, but I couldn’t resist the joke and I defy you to tell me you could). All the stories reveal troubled and troubling relationships with fatherhood. From Abraham who was willing to sacrifice the child he loved for a God he loved more to Anthony, whose desperation not to fail his daughter is his undoing. Each section explores how fathers fail us by being human and not the gods we see them as when young. Their flaws – from the human to the grotesque – are laid bare and the love that still exists in these complex relationships is revealed. You don’t stop loving someone just because they are a monster – you just wish you did.
In the play, Tristan Bernays has taken stories that are so symbolic they are literally the basis of Christianity and delicately brought them back to a human level. In doing so, he also humanises the practitioners of religions. As we move further and further into a secular world, religion can become a monolithic thing, distant and cold. Here, despite the very obvious flaws religion is about people and stories. Five people sat in a church four sharing their stories.
The decision to have the group leader not speak but sing what feel something like homilies (though each in a different style as suits the storyteller) also feels powerful. Though I am no longer a believer, it was in group singing in church that I felt most religious (Well that and a certain moment in the vicarage when I was 12, but that’s between me, God and the Vicar’s son). The feeling of singing in unison is a powerful one and as they end on the group singing a final hymn, it leaves us with a spirit of optimism. There will be healing.
That’s a message we could all use right now, of all faiths and none. Testament is a timely reprise of a 2017 play. It’s message, subject matter and holy spirit could not be more needed in this godforsaken world.
Emma Burnell has her first play coming out in August and is currently fundraising to pay for it. If you have enjoyed this interview or her other writing for View From the Cheap Seats, please consider giving her a donation.