Solemn Mass For A Full Moon in August
The Pit May 2000
The Barbican International Theatre Event 2000 opens with this production from Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.
Canadian Michael Tremblay's play, translated from the French by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay, uses the structure of the Catholic Mass to explore the various pains and joys that love can bring.
On a series of apartment house balconies on a hot summer night, five pairs of characters and a widow respond to the glow of the full moon, which gradually becomes in their minds a surrogate for the God to whom they pray.
A young couple driven insatiably randy by the moonlight cannot keep their hands off each other while, next door, a middle-aged lesbian couple strain to avoid facing the horror that love has died.
A man driven to exhaustion and despair by caring for his Aids-infected lover guiltily prays for release while a woman who has spent her entire life caring for her invalid father pours out her frustration and resentment.
Another man tries to explain to his mother how devastated he is by the departure of a lover while a widow is overcome by memories of her husband's sexuality.
As my pairings suggest, the various individuals and groups bounce off each other in resonating ways, even though they have virtually no interaction and only rarely notice each other.
The accumulation of pain and longing, punctuated only occasionally by flashes of joy, does build evocatively, but the evening is not a total success.
The piece is really more poem than play, and is almost entirely static, the various characters taking turns (or, frequently, overlapping) in their monologues.
Tremblay calls for repetitions and choric echoes, and directors Philip Howard and Ros Steen have gone beyond his stage directions to create a symphony of overlapping and antiphonal voices.
This contributes to the evocation of the Mass, and occasionally reminds one of that other great theatrical poem by Dylan Thomas. But it is essentially static and untheatrical.
In addition to his musical repetitions, Tremblay tends to make each monologue go on longer than it really needs to, adding to the sense that the piece has trouble moving forward.
The decision by the translators to put the play in Scottish dialect may be justified by its Edinburgh production, but it has its downsides. Apart from the occasional obstacles to understanding for the non-Scottish ear, the essential Catholicism of the play doesn't quite ring true in Presbyterian Scotland.
In the cast of eleven, Robert Carr as the exhausted but devoted caregiving lover and Ann Scott-Jones as the widow with the enriching memories most fully convey their characters' realities and depths of emotion.
The density of emotion and nonlinear structure make the play heavy going even at just over 90 minutes. And yet, rather than suggesting that it be cut, I await the day when a talented composer sets this text to music and makes it the chamber opera it already half is in spirit.
Then the richness of Tremblay's vision may achieve the full expression its present structure denies it.
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