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TESTAMENT at VAULT Festival – Review

TESTAMENT by Tristan Bernays - Photo by Michael O’Reilly
TESTAMENT by Tristan Bernays – Photo by Michael O’Reilly

Tristan Bernays is rapidly becoming a writer to watch, having previously won awards and rave reviews for one man show The Bread and The Beer, and Teddy. His latest play, Boudica, was commissioned as part of Emma Rice’s last season at the Globe this summer – no mean feat. Here at the Vaults, Testament is another little gem, presenting an hour-long reimagining of some of the Bible’s forgotten characters to the sound of Ivy Davies’ gospel-inspired underscore.

For here we have 4 individuals – Isaac, Lot’s daughters, and the thief on the cross – transported to modern day America, retelling their tales in what appears to be a group therapy context. Isaac, who is given a nervy, hesitant, deeply troubled demeanour by Bernays (who also performs), recounts the moment his dad Abraham was commanded to kill him. It is powerfully disturbing to imagine how Isaac may have felt, and how the paternal relationship was likely to have suffered as a result – very human experiences that the Bible pointedly omits.

Similarly, with Lot’s daughters J and M (played with delicious vigour and wryness by Peta Cornish and Celeste Dodwell), we are transported to Southern America, where their childhood experience of their mother’s death, and of subsequently being holed up in a dingy motel room with their (often drunk) father, is reminiscent of a kind of Josef Fritzl scenario. The sisters, evidently close, bounce off one another’s sentences, descending into their tale until they arrive at rock bottom, before slowly pulling themselves up out of the mire again. It’s a touching and, I’m sorry to say, disturbingly reminiscent portrayal of those stories too often heard on the news today.

Finally, we have the thief on the cross, on death row in a New York jail cell, with Jesus in the cell next door. Simon Manyonda gives our thief a humanity that lies beyond the realm of the often damning indictment found in Biblical literature. He professes to be there by circumstance, not choice, and Jesus’ fame and constant offerings of forgiveness really just get on his nerves. We see for the first time a broken man trying to provide for his family, forced to consider a path of crime after he loses his job and is booted off the straight and narrow. One panicked mistake later, and he finds himself on death row. Themes such as capital punishment, racial inequality, justice and judgement are rife in this final tale, and as with each, the audience is not only made aware of the lost voices in the ancient text, but we are asked to reconsider each characters’ culpability for their predicaments.

Victims of chance and circumstance, Testament reveals that in many ways, nothing has really changed in the last 2,000 years. Those in authority continue to wield and abuse their power, expecting orders to be gratefully received and obeyed, without giving due consideration to the deeper ramifications their actions may have on humanity itself. Simply and deftly directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson for Old Sole Theatre, Testament cleverly shines a light on these issues and, brought together by the gorgeous voice of Ivy Davies, highlights the dichotomy that currently exists wherein one’s persecutor can ironically become one’s saviour. Intriguing, gripping stuff.

5 Star Rating

A man whose father tried to sacrifice him.
Two sisters with a dark family secret.
A man on death row whose cell mate claims to be the Messiah.

TESTAMENT presents four overlooked biblical characters (a ragtag group of women, children, outcasts and thieves)and resets them into modern day America, giving these unknown voices a chance to finally tell their side of the story.

Featuring a haunting live score of gospel and blues, TESTAMENT is a compelling and human exploration of the dark underside of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Old Sole Theatre Company presents…
TESTAMENT Written by Tristan Bernays
Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson
Produced by Darius Thompson
at VAULT Festival, The Vaults Theatre, Launcelot Street, London SE1 7AD
22 – 26 February 2017


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