St Leonard's Church played host to a thrilling evening of intense, deep drama, in my book – or rather, in Booker nominated author Jill Paton Walsh's philosophical and allegorical book Knowledge of Angels. Tamsin Clarke's turns as author, director and very memorable character solidify her well and truly as the artistic director of experimental theatre company Popelei, who are behind this piece. As adaptations of novels go, and it seems this is an exceptional one, this production takes you to places (not only physically but emotionally) with ease and large helpings of talent and ability. It will also, and I hope you will stay with me on this, take you there soulfully.
Our journey begins with our faithful narrator setting the scene, as parables and fairy tales often do. The narrator, here played with Puck-like charm by Maixence Bauduin, cheerfully sows seeds that will have a devastating payoff later, and proceeds to be our guide through this slick production. Much is to be said about the writer/director Tamsin Clarke's role of the "Wild Child" Amara, a young girl raised by wolves. Suffice it to say, the whines, murmurs and growls she uttered raised hairs on the back of my neck throughout. The whole production is dexterous and flexible as the cast swing from structure to structure, literally chucking each other about the stage and reminding me, at points, of a DV8 production. However, this flexibility of movement was no substitution for dialogue, character work or plot, and served to tell a simple story concerning faith, morality, society and gender. This sounds like an impressive list, and yet Popelei make it all utterly relatable and clear.
The irony of the atheist protagonist later martyred for his lack of belief is heightened by the portrayal of the character Palinor by Matthew Wade, every bit the peaceful everyman caught at the wrong place in literally the wrong time, somewhere around but not actually in 1450. He is supported by a cast of complicated characters like conflicted young nun Jaime (played by Julia Correa) with youthful innocence that soon evolves into something more knowing at the climax of the play. Jaime's interactions with Amara portray both the most touching and impressive scenes of the play, as the characters engage in brilliant feats of movement and interaction. David Vale, as both members of the Spanish Inquisition, spitting and preaching from the pews as well as the pious monk, reaches the climax of the play with his back shockingly turned on his faith, and is a strong addition to this very able cast. Henry Douthwaite as Severo, an authority figure in the middle of a religious crisis, tops off this extremely talented group.
The whole thing runs smoothly, professionally and seamlessly, guiding you through the action yet refusing to let you second-guess it, succeeding at everything from movement, dance, song, music, and even puppetry with aplomb. At first the set seems unassuming and doesn't yet betray its role as an almost additional player. Full of iron and steel and complete with naturally recurring Crucifixion crosses, the structure looks both alien and unobtrusive in a Church altar, stained glass window behind. And yet, the set design by Josh Wyles and Joe Maloney allowed for sharp juxtapositions to appear to great effect, for example as Severo sits in his throne playing chess directly above his atheist prisoner below. It even seems organic that the cast get changed unobtrusively but visibly just off beside the stage. The stage itself is built up above the original concrete and stone to elevate the action and save a few bumps and scrapes along the way.
The lighting design by Simeon Miller at first also seems unobtrusive, but at one point created one of the most striking images I've ever seen in theatre as red tendrils of fabric fly out of the Spanish inquisitor's sleeves and the genuine religious figures behind are lit up in suddenly in a gruesome looking red light. The costumes, whilst retaining the message that it is set in the past but with no fixed date, are seasonal, basic and yet elegant, setting up character and plot well simultaneously.
The context of where you are watching this performance is not lost or forgotten for a moment, but the space is both useful and limiting for different reasons. In terms of plot and structure it plays a characteristic host, but it also takes you out of the scenes with the various loud creaking of pews at the smallest movement. The only criticism I have is that I'd like to see Knowledge of Angels played somewhere with more capacity than four pews, as its really not a performance to be watched only by few and I'd love to see it playing a full house. But this is only a small criticism of what really is an excellent and fitting location for a play that discusses religion so fully.
Finally, a word on the music, as we are serenaded by Jamie Doe and his guitar throughout, creating a beautiful atmosphere that becomes an intrinsic part of the production. Sitting usually where the pulpit would be, Doe's melodies, far from just being a concept to help to tell the story, just seem to fit within the play beautifully. It is yet another skill and talent that solidifies this performance as spellbinding, the effect of which stays with you long after the event: such is the power of this brilliant performance.