Friday, November 4th 2016

David Burton's St Mary's in Exile about Father Peter Kennedy

By Martin Buzacott

It’s hard to imagine a more inherently theatrical story than that of Father Peter Kennedy, stripped of his role as priest at St Mary’s in South Brisbane for his liberal views that attracted a growing congregation while causing consternation among Roman Catholic authorities. 

Even before setting foot in the theatre, one can visualise the theatricalisation of this remarkable true story. At the start, a parishioner arrives with a gift of a Buddhist-themed statue, displayed in acknowledgement of religious inclusion. Then the pews are turned so worshippers can face one another in an act of shared humanity. And finally, across town, the city’s archbishop wrestles with his conscience as his former friend and fellow seminarian becomes a celebrity, revitalising the church for hundreds of worshippers but at the expense of centuries of religious tradition. What to do? Make the church relevant or preserve its authority? It’s gripping stuff. 

But in QTC’s big-hearted rendering of the story that happened just a city block away from the venue where it’s being staged, playwright David Burton dramatises none of these obvious scenes. Instead, as the lights go up on Father Kennedy (Peter Marshall), about to vacate the church that he’s made a home for the homeless and Greens voters alike, the principle of tell-don’t-show begins its tyrannical rule over what is otherwise Burton’s intelligent play of ideas. 

Through a frame-tale of a domestic abuse victim (Ben Warren) asking questions, we’re only told about these key scenes in retrospect, alongside other stories of the disaffected and the lapsed who found safety and a welcome at a St Mary’s where parent-priests and women officiated and the LGBT community found sanctuary long before the play itself began. 

So by the time Archbishop John Bathersby (Joss McWilliam) shows up, the main narrative journey’s already over, his mind’s well and truly made up, and we meet him only as a position, not as a person. He’s a boo-hiss villain rather than someone who, like Kennedy, has to wrestle with the play’s overriding and intriguing theme of how private faith can be pursued within an archaic public institution. 

For Burton, it becomes that most difficult but also, sadly, most common of new play structures, one based on character reaction to unseen interesting events. But the strength of the ideas, Jason Klarwein’s clear and poised direction, a terrific proscenium arch set and strong acting sustain it through its lengthy, reactive and sometimes repetitive orations.

(From an article by Martin Buzacot published in The Australian on September 5th, 2016.)