Set in the breathtaking beauty of St. Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, statues of saints and holy men peer scornfully down at Knowledge of Angels from every corner, bathed in a strange and eerie light. And so they might, for this performance, based on the philosophical novel by Jill Paton Walsh, opens up for debate the very existence of the god they were built to honour, within the very place built to worship him.
Set on an island consumed by religious fervour, the simultaneous appearance of an atheist washed ashore and a feral child raised by wolves from the mountains throws the islanders’ way of life into question as they attempt to ascertain from these outsiders whether the knowledge of god is innate. The prejudice conveyed within characters such as the Inquisitor Fra Murta, powerfully performed by David Vale, toward the atheist Palinor is a direct attack upon the historic intolerance of religious institutions and is further heightened by the way in which Palinor marks a striking resemblance to Jesus Christ as he is lifted from the water, bearded and wearing only a loincloth, as if upon a crucifix.
And yet what is heartening about this production, is the confirmation that, by allowing this kind of performance in a space of worship such as this, we do in fact live in a society that is not only tolerant towards each other’s beliefs but also happy to open them up for debate. Thematically then, the setting is a great success and this also extends to the practicalities of the staging. The music for example, beautifully composed and performed by Jamie Doe, is absolutely haunting as it echoes round the space, and adds further resonance to the actors’ powerful voice work.
The set, designed by Rachel Wingate and Josh Wyles, is spectacular, resembling a church itself as it twists and turns and spirals skywards. It also works to give a strong sense of the child like to this production, the actors using it as a real playground, clambering over the scaffolding and each other with boundless energy. The child-like nature of this production works to draw comparisons between the religious belief of us as children in the eyes of god and adds to Palinor’s attitude towards the pure naivety of many of the religious characters. I was delighted to also see the use of puppets, bringing a sense of magic and strangeness to the proceedings.
The performances of these excellently developed characters are all compelling and the scenes between the director Tamsin Clarke as the feral wolf child Amara and the abbess that cares for her, played by Julia Correa, are particularly touching. Matthew Wade as Palinor and Henry Douthwaite as Severo, the man in charge of his fate, are also very memorable as the two characters forge a strong respect for each other despite their differences. Taking on a complex novel and weaving it into a strange, magical fairytale, this Popelei production deserves much praise as a beautifully conveyed discussion on the existence of god.
Knowledge of Angels is playing at St Leonard’s Church until 27 October. For more information and tickets, see the Popelei Theatre website.