Gritty, intense, and challenging, Darkness Falls offers a side to the gospel story you may never have encountered before.
When most of us think of ‘church’ we picture a pleasant building full of cheerful people singing, not a man cringing in a filthy prison cell. Yet, this is where Saltmine’s production opens, with the incarceration of the disciple John for sedition. Bitter and resigned, the other inmates can’t understand what’s different about him. But John has a story he cannot leave untold.
The premise is sharp and clever. Covering miracles and encounters from John’s eyewitness account of the gospel, each of the inmates, initially grudgingly, engages with John’s playacting and assumes different roles within his story. Some of the transitions between story and cell are slick, whilst others are deliberately blurred, so at times it becomes a little hard to discern whether the inmates are roleplaying or not. But this later reveals itself as shrewd direction when it becomes apparent that scenarios and emotions from John’s account are playing out in parallel in the cell, subtly pointing to the pervasive relevance of Jesus’ teachings. After the groundwork of the first half, the second feels freer to generate a sense of momentum and increasing unease leading up to Jesus’ arrest.
Much careful thought has gone into the production’s realist design: the stage centres around two crude bunk beds, with dirty rags suspended over the scuffed wood which lines the floor. Baggy and tattered costumes reinforce the sparsity of the inmates’ lifestyles, whilst a few choice props are brilliantly deployed for multiple uses: a simple barrel filled with water functions as a trough for the inmates, a pool for baptism, water to be turned into wine and the well visited by the Samaritan woman. Spotlighting and acting of extreme sensitivity work together to create a sense of suffocating claustrophobia in the play’s most powerful scene as John both explains and relives Jesus dying for him on the cross, trapped in a cage with his fellow inmate.
Indeed, it’s the acting which makes this production shine. This is a play which is self-consciously jarring in its violent physicality and chaotic noise, both of which require, and receive, complete conviction from the cast. John (Marcel White) combines earnestness with a deep strength and glues the production together with confidence whilst the characterisation of yearning Lavinia and the hardened sceptic Timon form a powerful contrast. Yet it is Titus (Freddy Goymer) and Lucius (Ben Kessell) whose acting surprise the most: Goymer’s unrestrained aggression pours through his wild physicality yet later subsides to reveal tenderness and pain, whilst Kessell’s initial heavy lilt and awkward movements as Lucius give way to striking authority and grace in a powerful depiction of Christ. The actors play off one another well, and also deliver some beautiful acapella singing with rich harmonies: even if individual words are occasionally lost amongst the noise of the cell, the raw energy and cloying atmosphere of the prison always comes through.
Darkness Falls is a play which asks difficult questions as John’s companions try to discern the implications of his claims. At the forefront of these is if John knew the resurrection story to be false, why would he die for it? It is White’s impassioned delivery of his final monologue that sets the challenging and ultimately hopeful tone of the play: ‘That’s the end of the story,’ he says, ‘At least… for now.’ But as the lights sweep across to the audience, an implicit final question becomes clear: Darkness falls, but will you come and see a greater light dawn?
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