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I Am a Miracle review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

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In 2012 Marvin Lee Wilson was executed in Texas by lethal injection for murder, despite having an IQ of 68. Director Matthew Lutton’s program note tells us that Melbourne playwright Declan Greene’s I Am a Miracle (Wilson’s last words — he had found religion on death row) is a play for Wilson, and the wording is important. When we see the three performers — Bert LaBonté, Melita Jurisic and Hana Lee Crisp — are in prisoner’s red jump suits, it may seem as if we are going to see a dramatisation of the case, a play about Wilson. Greene and Lutton, however, take us somewhere else: the play is a daring, ambitious vision of oppression and the yearning for ultimate redress.

Marg Horwell and Paul Jackson’s set is both minimal and monumental: there are chairs strewn on and around a black revolving platform with a section of wall to suggest interior space, and the vast curtain that covers the whole of the back of the stage is used brilliantly in the transitions between the first and second scenes, and for the finale. Jackson’s lighting design harasses the actors with jittering flourescence and drenches the back curtain in red to match the jail clothing and finally confronts the spectators as well.

After a preamble from LaBonté, Jurisic is stripped of her jump suit to reveal another uniform underneath, the blue frock coat and white breeches of the 18th century Royal Dutch Army, and she assumes the character of a soldier sent out to the Dutch colony of Surinam to fight against the protracted and bloody slave rebellion — war, in fact — that took place over many, many years there. The material appears to derive from The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam by John Gabriel Stedman, a book that later became a radical favourite (one edition was illustrated by William Blake) and is a phantasmagorical catalogue of cruelty towards the slaves and sickness amongst the Europeans that summons up the same sense of horror as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

This sequence functions as an extended monologue, with LaBonté occasionally taking the lines of a rebel, spoken from behind Jurisic as she faces the audience. The eloquence and rich detail of the writing, the alienation effect of the cross-dressing, and the charisma of Jurisic’s performance all keep our attention for what is a long stretch of prose narration.

Between LaBonté’s speech and Jurisic’s, and further into the piece, there are musical interludes: the three perform a modernised version of plainsong (composer David Chisholm) that provides a vertiginous shift in point of view: the ethereality of religious music lets us know that the frame for what is going on is all life. Hana Lee Crisp takes the burden of the singing and otherwise speaks only rarely: she is the watching angel.

The connection between the 18th century story and Marvin’s is slavery, the institution in both the middle of its vile history and its unfinished aftermath; and behind that all injustice, in Australia and Cambodia and Burma as well as Texas and colonial Surinam. (At no point do any of the performers attempt an American accent: another way to highlight that the play is not about representing Wilson as such.) Who makes the law and who is subject to them? The inhuman, the soldier’s superior officer tells him, and that doesn’t mean animals, but anyone the king considers inhuman, the weak-willed, the stupid, women, Jews. Who is the king? He assumes many shapes through history, and the book of laws he writes is borne aloft down through history by all the nameless ones. And at the back of this authoritarianism comes nihilism: God is a bored man masturbating in a filthy bed.

The second scene is set in the present and is far less direct that what precedes it. LaBonté and Jurisic seem to be a couple. She has had a bad day squabbling with a racist relative on Facebook, but his has been worse: driving back from the shopping mall, he got lost, he didn’t know which exit to turn off. What is the problem? At first it may appear as if he is the victim of existential disorientation, a form of suburban anomie perhaps. But as things go on it becomes clearer that something much deeper is wrong. The scene ends in violence and confusion.

The lack of narrative connection between the two parts sharpens our own intellectual activity. Whatever is going on here, it isn’t obvious, and Greene challenges the audience to find their own linkages. Is the relationship between the white woman and the black man also a kind of bondage? His mental incapacity part-rhymes with Wilson’s, but he is not the same character. He is losing the unique pattern of his humanity: he is becoming subject to her laws. He needs to be told what to do for his own good. And the moment you formulate these thoughts you realise what they sound like: all the ancient paternalistic rationalisations.

When we return to Wilson at the end, the play launches into the cosmological and an assertion of true justice against vicious power, dissonant crescendo and the glare of painfully bright light off the set’s black surfaces suggesting to me at least something like science-fiction.

The play derives intense theatrical energy, and the suspense that comes with the suspension or occlusion of meaning, from its three phases — the historical narrative, the domestic drama, and the visionary finale — being so sharply distinguished. We follow it as if it were a mystery: where is the key? Yet in turn this raises the question whether Greene has sacrificed too much coherence, by opening out the themes too much, and because the discontinuities, fascinating and disconcerting though they are in themselves, don’t sufficiently prepare for the ending. Visually and aurally that ending is extraordinary, but it may also seem as if it is trying to force a response. Yet the pat line about a work being less than the sum of its parts slights the power of what Greene and Lutton and their actors do give us. I Am a Miracle will puzzle, and it will possibly frustrate. But it is a remarkable experience all the same.

I Am a Miracle is at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Melbourne until August 9. Featured image by Pia Johnson

4 responses to “I Am a Miracle review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

  1. This is a badly written drama that needs extensive editing to turn it into a play worthy of production; while the audience is able to understand what the playwright is getting at in each section and one expects intellectual challenge at the theater, this production is in no way intellectually enjoyable. While the performances are good the casting is inadequate and whether the writer wants the play staged with two women and one man, the audience would have more empathy if the cast was composed of one younger man (to play the young Dutch soldier), an older man (to play the “older” man with Alzheimer’s) and a woman to play the older man’s wife; better still, have a cast of six. The bad casting of today’s production demanded too much from the audience on top of the disjointed script.
    While the reviewer indicated that the backdrop was washed with red in the first scene today’s production lacked that nuance.

  2. I completely agree. The lack of connection between the three parts of the play did not add up to a total that was greater than the sum of its parts, at least for me. A confusing mess that led to a confused message – it would have been so much more powerful if the linking of the threads been more obvious. The acting was brilliant, as was the set and soundscape. The visionary finale lighting show felt like it was trying too hard to stun and become meaningful when that should have been accomplished by the writing with the lighting merely an emphatic highlighting.

  3. I agree with Kim. Fabulous performances but too little coherence, the play was disappointing. It needed a careful edit to ensure the obscure Surinam section worked with what appeared to be a person suffering Alzheimer’s. It’s not enough to present a curious historical event and leave it swinging in the breeze disconnected from a contemporary Alzheimers crisis. Sound and stagin were impressive but the play too flimsy to hold it together.

  4. “I Am a Miracle will puzzle, and it will possibly frustrate.”

    This sums up the reaction I had and the four or five people I spoke to afterwards. And though I found the show periodically absorbing, the more I thought about it the more clunky and naive the whole thing seemed. The disparate elements didn’t resonate for me and the “visionary finale” was especially cringeworthy. It was as if the writer – after spending the bulk of the evening with representations of black people as victims of colonial greed, slavery, rape, poverty, repressive social forces or debilitating medical conditions – felt compelled to redress the balance by showing a black person being defiant/assertive/hopeful/triumphant. It felt very fake.

    Having said that I think Declan Greene is seriously talented and I’d rather see an ambitious failure than something well realised but safe.

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