For those of us not brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, the idea of the ‘confessional’ is alien and possibly weird. (Ab)solution, a new drama written by Helen Ackrill and Stu Jackson for Jackrill Productions, provides ample scope to explore this strange dynamic.
First, we see a woman in the confession box (staged simply with two adjacent chairs) explaining that she is pregnant. While the priest trots out the usual stuff about the Church’s stance on sex before marriage and abortion, it appears that the story behind this unwanted pregnancy is rather complicated. We are then taken to the start of the story, where the same woman, Fiona (Hollie Wade) meets Alec (Max Hallam) when he comes to her shop to buy his mum a jumper for her birthday. They quickly discover a shared interest in art, and Alec asks Fiona to accompany him to an exhibition – Rothko, as it happens. This quickly turns into a relationship and a ‘meet-the-family’ scene introduces us to Alec’s brothers, Ryan and Michael (played by Steve Cowley and Ryan Gilkes, respectively). This is where the complications begin, since each of the brothers is beset with some sort of sin which each, in turn, confesses to the same priest (Stu Jackson).
Jackson plays his role deadpan, front-facing and without being over-pious (although, with a jarring cliché, he addresses all the confessors as ‘my child’ – does that really happen?). And so, he gives the main actors room to bring their characters to life. Alec is shy and confused, Ryan is aggressive and confrontational, and Michael is confident and brash – but of course, these are their outward personas. Lurking beneath what they tell the priest (and therefore, the audience) are darker creatures and far deeper-set sins than the wishy-washy words of their priest (such as impure thoughts, anger issues, pride) suggest.
While the priest admits he can ‘only advise on spiritual matters,’ Ryan hits the spot when he says: “You probably have no idea what I’m talking about.” Certainly the priest seems far removed from the addictions, temptations, and sexual predilections the brothers continually face. It’s only towards the end, when he realises events are about to turn catastrophic, that the priest is either unable or comes too late to intervene.
There is little religious didacticism in the writing – rather, the confessional gives opportunity to set up dramatic irony as we hear each brother give their version of what has happened between them and Fiona. This is developed in the interaction between the characters outside the confessional and then, with a short (pre-recorded) off-stage contretemps, a degree of intrigue is introduced. I won’t spoil the plot by saying which one of the brothers turns violent towards Fiona, but I will say that suspense veered slightly towards confusion at this point. The idea that the woman was seen as a temptress by all three men made me very uncomfortable, and the fact that Ryan says “There’s a lot of lies in our family” – or so they tell the priest – seems to cement the inefficacy of the confessional conversation.
But this might be just my personal take on Roman Catholicism – I’m not sure if this point would have been taken by everyone. This is a tricky play that doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s trying to say. It is an ambitious piece of writing with convincing performances from all actors, particularly Steve Cowley. When Michael says, “The more she said no, the more I wanted it to happen,” it seems this is not only a #metoo scenario for Fiona, but also, for the brothers, a #youtoo. With their underlying toxicity, it could have been any one of them. In an unconventional curtain call, where the actors remained in role and did not bow, the point was made: it could happen to anyone.
You can see (Ab)solution at Greenside @ Infirmary St from 5th – 24th August at 16:00. For tickets, please visit www.edfringe.com