Escaping the Void

2 March 2008

By Virginia Corless

In a time of martyrdoms in the name of Allah and sacrifices of soul to the atheist void, how can we bring the necessary themes of faith, extremism, and martyrdom onto the stage?

Theatre without violence might be considered weak and untrue, as so many of the themes that shape our time centre on war and grief, suicide bombs and subjugation. But how can we capture the finality and tragedy of a life ended on a stage, when all involved know the actor lying dead will rise again in the next blackout, that the stage blood will wash off in the dressing room sink, that the cries of grief will turn to laughter in the post-show celebrations?

Enacting violence and death on stage is an ancient challenge; indeed the Greek playwrights of old were wise enough to place such acts off stage, with messengers arriving to tell the tales of melting flesh, severed limbs, and heroic deaths. Now in the age of films in which death is portrayed in perfect detail and unrelenting realism, what place does stage death have?

The same questions haunt the other side of the sublime: just as death challenges the limits of theatre, so too does the miraculous. How can events outside of nature, acts that reorder the universe shifting time and place, motive and consequence, divine and human, be meaningfully portrayed on a stage of wood and metal?

This week at the ADC a play embraces both of these challenges, as a dynamic ensemble performs Dulcitius, a play of the dark ages written by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a 10th century Saxon nun who wrote wonderful stories of miracles and martyrdom. Dulcitius is a story of persecution, faith, fidelity, extremism, torture, generosity, dogmatism, and

sacrifice, an echo from our own distant past of modern struggles with religious extremism.

But how to tell a tale of miracles in a modern society often claimed to be bereft of the divine? For here the gods of old have abandoned their intimacy with the world and leave us to our own means.

In one answer to these questions – the uncertainties of modern theatre in a demon-haunted world – the director and cast of Dulcitius explore the ancient tradition of storytelling. The actors invite the audience into the process of conjuring miracle stories

of the past, family mythologies, and scientific tales. By embracing the act of telling, scenes of violence may be paired with the cleansing rituals that must follow their performance, and the act of death becomes as rich in meaning when an actor rises again to resume life in another role as in the moment of her symbolic death.

This engagement with the meaning of the act of performance in addition to the meaning of that which is performed touches on the very soul of the theatre: that this play tonight is different than that on any night to come, for it is conjured in the moment, by the actors alive on that stage at the very instant of performance, by the dreams and fears and expectations of the individuals in the audience, by the conjunction of a few thousand words, a few hundred people, and a few hours of time to create a living memory of a shared mythology.

And so, free from dead feet shuffling in darkness, Dulcitius returns to the roots of human imagination to conjure a world of miracles, to an ancient age that illuminates our own. This week a story of the sublime is won from void – rescued from the forgetfulness of time and the dissolution of memory.

Dulcitius will be showing at the ADC theatre at 23:00, 5-8 March 2008