Castle Theatre Company’s performance of Agnes of God follows a court psychiatrist, Dr Martha Livingstone, as she assesses the sanity of a young nun, Agnes, accused of murdering her own new-born baby. It’s a horrifying premise, but this doesn’t even begin to describe the power of this magnificent piece of theatre. It tackles a plethora of difficult issues: faith, science, mental health, child abuse, the law, rape, sanity, eating disorders…the list goes on. It is a truly absorbing play; harrowing and thought-provoking in equal measure.
Kate Barton has done an excellent job in directing what I’m sure was a challenging piece. The choice of setting, the Tunstall Chapel in Durham Castle, was perfectly atmospheric. However, it did not always feel quite appropriate for a play which seems to attack so many aspects of organised religion. ‘Seems’ is the key, for this play does not allow for easy conclusions. Its attitude towards religion (and faith in general) is exceedingly complex and I think that the choice of location actually added constructively to this ambiguity. Due to the layout of the stage, characters often conversed from opposite sides of the room, which left audience heads swivelling as if at a tennis match. This had a gripping effect which in fact aided in the construction of the tension of the interactions.
Jessica Christy, playing Dr Livingstone, contrasted sharply with this reverent setting. Cigarette in hand, she strode into the chapel with the confidence of the assured atheist. The disintegration of this confidence, which had bordered on arrogance at times in the first act, was portrayed admirably, as the case began to affect her more and more personally. Her soliloquies at times felt slightly melodramatic, but this was a very minor fault.
The part of the Mother Superior, played by Georgie Franklin, is complicated. It can be difficult to follow her motives and the audience is often at a loss to decipher her attitude towards the intruding psychiatrist. Her bewildering changes, from kind and eager to help to hostile and at times menacing, were carried off very well, creating an effective atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. However, at the beginning of the play, there was a tendency for Franklin and Christy to interrupt each other’s dialogue. However, the problem disappeared once the play got properly underway and did not detract from the overall performance.
Jenny Walser was perfectly cast as Agnes, the young nun whose innocence and ignorance of the real world arouses our immediate sympathy. She was required to be fragile and frightened, yet capable of handling scenes of intense and violent emotion, portraying deep psychological trauma as well as the purity of Agnes’ childlike manner. Her physical expression was impressive and her voice jumped between a quavering, uncertain tone and hysterical outbursts of passion and desperation. She was often genuinely frightening to watch, which can only be a compliment in the context of this play.
Music had a central place in the play, mainly through Agnes’ beautiful singing voice. The soft, comforting church music which played as we entered the chapel was, however, the only point at which the music was anything close to tranquil. The violent and disturbing content was inconsistent with angelic hymn-singing, which gave the play much of its ambiguous mood. Jenny Walser’s superb voice took on a dark and disturbing quality.
I was captivated from beginning to end of this performance. It is not a light-hearted play and perhaps not a good choice for an evening of casual, mindless entertainment, as it will force you to think about profound questions with no reassuring answers. They may have given me some sleepless nights, but the cast definitely deserve a full house for the rest of their run.
Photograph: Emma Werner