June 01, 1999

Dark Truths

Carrying Light
Verity Laughton

State Theatre South Australia
and Vitalstatistix

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There is something fundamentally threatening about closed religious societies. We call them cults and no matter how benign their objectives they are demonised. The settlement of the United States was propelled by groups going that further thirty miles just to get away. And whether Shakers, Amish, Mormons or Mennonites they solemnly believed that they embodied the extended family in Christ.

The appeal of the lifestyle is still strong, although the traditional communities have all had their share of difficulties staying robust and culturally separate. They have battled in the courts for their right to be different- invariably reported as their right to be weird. And since the late1960s and the fusion of radical Christianity and hippie millenarianism, they have mutated into such sects as the Children of God, the Branch Davidians and the deadly eucharist of Jonestown.

In Carrying Light, playwright Verity Laughton takes us into the crossfire in a small South Australian rural town she calls Nangdula. A fundamentalist community known as the Kindred lives on the outskirts. They have few connections with the town people and no-one gets too far inside their compound without challenge. Suspicion and resentment is never far from the surface.

When one of the acolytes asks why the sect members attract such hatred from the town she is told -“we are the cup in which they carry their fear.” But, while Laughton presents us with the workings of a cult, it is not the dynamics of group conditioning that centrally interests her. Rather, it is the attraction and the impulse- for any of us- to surrender to unconditional, simplistic belief, that is her real focus.

Rose McBride is a press photographer who has been around a bit. She is burnt-out from being too up close and personal in Beirut and Ireland. And she is back in Nangdula because she has just nursed her difficult father through a difficult death. She has also been hitting the booze to settle her nerves. And she is more than passing curious about the cult that has set up just up out of town. To that end she has recruited local kid Carl Lucas to help her get a closer look. Son of the local pub owner and besotted with Erin Carver a teen age Kindred member, Carl is like a lot of young blokes in country towns who doesn’t where, or how, he fits in to the scheme of things. Rose and Carl are questers. Others, like the reporter Harvey Marshall are just there for a story, Carl’s father Ted wants everyone to steer clear, while cult leader Raphael equally has no wish to have his enmeshed community, which includes his sister and niece, scrutinised at all

Carrying Light, a State Theatre and Vitalstatistix joint venture directed by Rosalba Clemente, is ambitious in subject and scope which is both a strength and a difficulty. With a number of settings and a lot of narrative the production sometimes is too fully occupied with telling its story to give it resonance.

This is a problem for designer Kathryn Sproul, who uses a rigging of steel pipe and cyclone wire to create a series of enclosures- the pub with its West End kegs on one side and the garden compound of the Kindred community on the other. Through a central corridor Geoff Cobham’s lighting offers a deep blue of promise and his follow spots and foggy sprays go some way to suggest the transcendence, illumination and obfuscation that are the concerns of the play.

There are some memorable performances. Dennis Coard as Ted is a bewildered father whose love is too tough to see the dangers ahead, Bianca Phillips has a freshness as the ingenue Erin and Eileen Darley an eerie calm as Hannah whose devotion to her brother’s psychosexual demands are disturbing in the extreme. The role of Raphael is a difficult one in that he is a projection of others’ fantasies and yet must have a charisma vivid to the audience. It is a tall order for Brant Eustice who emanates menace well but carries light with less wattage.

Richard Piper, ever reliable, works well as Harvey Marshall the journalist who is both observer and participant in events which rapidly unravel. Justin Moore’s Karl is well-judged, and as centre of the play’s crisis, he captures our attention and concern. Tracy Mann has a large task as Rose McBride, a character with enough back story for a miniseries. As written, Rose is high-strung, wordy and stroppy. She is carrying more lead than light and so amidst her boozing and bravado, the depth of her angst and the nature and extent of her yearning is inclined to be lost. In her performance Tracy Mann goes for a scattergun approach and consequently some important targets are missed.

Carrying Light has excellent passages of writing and a set of themes which are perceptive and important. But despite the extent to which Rosalba Clemente has clarified the narrative there are too few moments when the production exults in its own theatricality. The text speaks more to a cinematographer to give it space and emptiness and a sense of its geography. The camera could also conjure better the need for ceremony and light. That way Verity Laughton’s script could be the equal parts thriller and metaphysics it promises to be.

The Adelaide Review, June, 1999.

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