Agnes of God

Mon 5th – Sat 10th August 2013

reviews

Shirley Halse

at 09:03 on 8th Aug 2013

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'Agnes of God' first opened on Broadway in 1982, now, more than thirty years later, the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group have chosen to bring it to the fringe. It does seem an odd play to choose, especially when you consider that its running time is almost twice that of the average Fringe show. Given the late hour and the busy, non-stop nature of the days here, I wasn’t hugely surprised when the man next to me started a quite snore.

The play’s content was quite shocking. A nun has given birth in a convent but her baby was found strangled by its own umbilical cord and no one knows who the father is. The court psychiatrist tries to ascertain the truth of the events. We weren’t in for a cheery ride. This script was, according to the program, based on events that did actually happen in 1976. On the information page for the show they ask if it was “A miracle or murder? A virgin birth or rape? Innocence or insanity?”

The questioning continued into the performance by the psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, and the accused, Sister Agnes, sometimes answered them. Sadly, this element felt incredibly repetitive, partly because of the plot and partly because Livingstone (Hilary Davies) asked everything in exactly the same manner.

Although there were some interesting revelations in the plot – both the psychiatrist and the Mother Superior being more implicated and less objective than we originally thought – it felt like much time was spent repeating things that we already knew. This play would have benefitted from some cuts in the script to speed up the pace by removing unnecessary repetition. From time to time it felt as though the play was just two older women shouting at each other about religion.

The arguments about religion probably would have been more provoking thirty years ago, however, the two women’s opposing faiths did raise some interesting questions about belief. From the start ,Sister Agnes’s (Clár Ní Shúilleabháin) was singing, and it seemed that her song tied the play together and the individuals. The song was beautifully haunting, and perhaps it was a metaphor for faith, as, when all was revealed at the end, Sister Agnes stopped singing.

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Florence Strickland

at 09:04 on 8th Aug 2013

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The power of one’s judgement being clouded by belief is presented on both sides of John Pielmeir’s ‘Agnes of God’. One could look at other examples in popular culture, such as John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play, ‘Doubt: A Parable’ - later translated into the film ‘Doubt’ in 2008. In similarly disturbing tones of gruesomeness and horror, Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, presents the issue of skewed attitudes towards women in the Catholic church, fuelled by the power of belief.

Hilary Davies as Dr. Martha Livingston introduced the matter of alternative endings at the very beginning of ‘Agnes of God’. A satisfying ending was what the play searched for in its answers to questions of infanticide, rape, and the most difficult question of all; faith. The play dealt with these traumatisingly presented subjects relatively well. However, overall there was something lacking to the heart of this production. I felt it could have been tightened in length, so that the same themes didn’t become repetitive before conclusions were reached. There was something two-dimensional to a play that had so much to be drawn out from it.

The three-person cast varied in their strengths. Wendy Mathison as Mother Miriam was cheerful and babbling to begin with. She revealed the more complicated depths of her character as the plot developed, predicted by her haughty edge and dubious demand to speak for Agnes herself at the beginning – a novice accused of murdering her own child. In contrast, pronounced skeptic Dr. Livingston refuses to accept the situation she at face value. Is Agnes ‘special’, and touched by God? Or, is she simply a damaged product of her psychological experiences? Clar Ni Shuilleabhain played this innocence touchingly; her performance certainly incurred my sympathies.

The ongoing debate between science and religion was clearly at the heart of this case. On the one hand, Mother Miriam cherished the idea of immaculate conception in an explanation of the events. On the other hand, Dr. Livingstone begins with the premise that “we are God”. Although this debate was thoroughly explored, it did seem at times that the two women acted as sounding boards for their opposing viewpoints. Hilary Davies could have explored her character further (and practised her smoking).

The level of hysteria within the play could have been toned down. The topics being dealt with already spoke much for themselves in their gravity. I found it unnecessarily disturbing that so much screaming was a companion to the events described – however perhaps this was just the desired effect. After one hour and forty-five minutes, however, a different tack was needed.

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