In a simplistic church setting, four chairs and a giant luminous cross at the back, Tristan Bernay’s Testament is an “exploration of the dark underside of The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
Knowledge of the Bible isn’t mandatory when seeing this show as the stories go through a complete transformation – being brought into the twenty-first century. However, a basic familiarity helps situate each of the characters as they recount their stories.
The show opens with Isaac (Tristan Bernays), the son of Abraham, who talks about his relationship with his now estranged father following the incident where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God. Next, Lot’s daughters (Celeste Dodwell and Peta Cornish) remember how life changed for them after their escape from Sodom. The final account comes from a man whose story resembles that of Barabbas (Simon Manyonda), the man whose life was spared over Jesus. The accounts are interspersed by gospel and blues music lead by Ivy Davies, it often seems that her songs take on the role of the type of advice one might get from a therapist.
While the first and last stories seem to stay relatively true to the biblical version, despite the modern setting, it’s the story of Lot’s daughters that proves to have been most fascinating in its re-interpretation. According to the Bible, his daughters become worried about who will continue their bloodline and get their father drunk in order to rape him and get pregnant. However, the play gives women a voice that is very much lacking in the Bible and suggests that this is just a cover for the real events and an attempt to protect Lot’s reputation.
Tristan Bernays has managed to create a new and captivating angle to the Bible and it’s impossible not to engage with their stories. Isaac’s story is so compelling because the aftershock of the sacrifice incident can resonate with many people; Lot’s daughters expertly address the lack of female voice in the Bible and the man on death row questions the concept of faith in a way that many audiences will be able to identify with.
The music ties up the stories beautifully and Dodwell’s voice is mesmerising to listen to. There isn’t too much interaction between the characters which seems to miss a key point. Even if they are not present in each other’s stories it would have brought the play to life a bit more if we could see some sort of reaction from the others as stories are being told.
They imitate but also completely subvert the tone of modern style religious gatherings. For the most part it’s really engaging to watch and the emotion of the characters as they tell their stories makes it seem rather real.
Testament plays The Vaults Theatre until February 26.
Photo: Michael O’Reilly