Review: Ecumenical

Laura Peatman 28 June 2012


Churchill College chapel, 24th June, 3pm

When a play ends and the audience are silent, there is usually one of two reasons. Either, it was so spectacular that we are momentarily breathless and incapable of re-entering the realms of reality; or, it was so confusing that we’re not even sure whether it has ended or what we just sat through. I’m afraid to say ‘Ecumenical’ fulfilled the latter explanation, and John Kinsella’s venture into experimental theatre contained little to redeem such a flat conclusion.

James Swanton, Mairin O’Hagan and Georgia Ingles portrayed three figures – ‘Red’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Green Mask’ – representing three elements (to correspond to the four elements of the chapel’s John Piper windows – I think I must have missed something regarding the mathematics there). This isn’t too complex a concept, but it certainly has the potential for intensity; yet this physical representation of the elements, for me, lacked not only passion and force, but interest. For a piece of experimental drama, there was very little left to interpretation. There was no need, for example, for ‘Green Mask’ to proclaim that she is the landscape, or epitomises simplicity, or represents fecundity; having been told this, the audience’s minds were left with little or no work to do, and I almost felt that Kinsella could have trusted a little more in his audience to interpret and respond to the work without such instruction.

The cast did their best with Kinsella’s script, with Swanton demonstrating the vocal joys and precision of gesture which he has demonstrated so mesmerisingly on other stages. Fred Maynard, in his role as the combination of all three elements, cut a mischievous, Puck-like figure as he pranced across the dramatic space and around and between the audience. The tactic of placing the three masked figures behind the audience as they took their seats was certainly effective as they later ‘came to life’ unexpectedly. However, these factors were not enough to save me from bafflement and, I’m afraid to say, eventual boredom. Particularly irritating was the fact that, in the final moments of the play as the characters exited the back of the chapel, the view from my seat was obscured by one of the chapel’s typically Churchillian columns. It might seem unreasonable to complain about the architecture of the venue, but this play was written specifically to be performed in this chapel; it therefore seemed strange that no care was taken to make sure all the audience would be able to see all the action.

The costumes were an odd combination of coloured hospital scrubs, roughly-cut capes, and masks which could have been made by primary school children; they progressed to the truly bizarre when Fred Maynard appeared sporting a garish shirt with, from what I could see, a Garfield-themed print. I’m sure there must have been some thinking behind this choice, but I couldn’t work out what it was.

In fact, this was my issue with the play as a whole. I am certain that Kinsella had some wonderful ideas in his head when writing this play, and I applaud bravery, uniqueness and experimentation in theatre: it is always more exciting than a writer or director playing it safe. Yet ‘Ecumenical’ managed to lose this potential excitement through its somehow simultaneously bizarre but flat script. Perhaps this was an Emperor’s New Clothes-style joke and there really was nothing in it. Or perhaps, someone might tell me, I simply wasn’t clever enough to ‘get’ it. However, while not fully understanding a piece of drama does not prevent enjoyment, what does limit it is the lack of intellectual or emotional stimulation that was inherent in this piece. It is a shame that such a prospectively exciting piece of experimental theatre delivered such little impact.

Laura Peatman