In the largest schism in Australia’s Catholic history, Father Peter Kennedy was ousted from his post at St Mary’s by the Church for his unorthodox practices. The beloved priest was progressive, inclusive (and a bit of a rebel) in the way he interpreted the scripture, conducted mass, and interacted with the community at wide. When he left the parish, so did more than 700 of his devoted parishioners.
The local story from our own backyard in South Brisbane created such media attention in 2009 that by 2011, a documentary that followed this extraordinary man was made by award winning film director Peter Hegedus.
Queensland Theatre Company, under the direction of Jason Klarwein, worked with local celebrated playwright David Burton (April’s Fool, The Voice in the Walls, Hedonism’s Second Album), to develop a character-driven piece of theatre that follows the story leading up to Father Kennedy’s exile.
Flashing forward and backward in time, it took a while to work out what time zone I was in, but once I set my watch I accepted the literary device and settled in for the ride.
The humble and uncluttered set design (Anthony Spinaze) with subtle lighting trims (Daniel Anderson) allowed the audience to focus on the story with the close knit ensemble delivering a solid, though sparse, performance.
Being a biographical drama, a critic’s view of the actors would change vastly depending on whether they were familiar with the real people they are representing. In this case, actors are critiqued based on their interpretation and execution of the character.
Peter Marshall’s Fr Kennedy was a layered portrait of a man grappling with so many questions and challenges. It was refreshing to see the complexity of a human rather than a 2D caricature of ‘a priest’.
Again, biographical accuracy aside, Kevin Spink as Fr Terry Fitzpatrick displayed an ease of delivery and quietly assured presence onstage which was enjoyable to watch. I’m surprised I haven’t seen him in the theatre before but am sure to see more in the future.
Bryan Probets gave a touching account as Joseph, a parishioner with a traumatic past; he also had some of the best pop-culture one-liners in the play, but the highlight was his scene-stealing portrayal of Tony Abbott on the ABC’s Q&A which gave the audience time to have a good old laugh at our pollies before getting back to the seriousness of the matter.
Joss McWilliam gave a confident, authoritative performance as the Archbishop John Bathersby, as well as some minor characters.
Chenoa Deemal, played Beth, the head of the LGBT group with great conviction and provided another layer of conflict and fracturing from within the group as well as dealing with the external conflict place upon them by the Catholic Church.
Luisa Prosser as Ruth, had a warmth, energy, and integrity of a woman dedicated to the service of others (Ruth being the head of Micah Projects, the wonderful social services organisation in West End, started by the parish).
Ben Warren as the mysterious man was the most confusing character for me. His over-confidence and continual irreverent attitude towards Fr Kennedy seemed out of place for this young man in his teens. It wasn’t until the end that the justification was provided for this, which is a dicey decision for a playwright as it runs the risk of taking the audience out of the action while they contemplate the actor’s delivery of the character, rather than involving the audience by provoking the thought of why the character is acting that way.
Although as an audience, one generally assumes the side of the protagonist, being Fr Kennedy, Burton as the writer and Jason Klarwein as the director should be commended on its representation of both sides of the issue in a way that really provokes the audience to not follow blindly, but to really consider the issues surrounding faith, religion, community, and leadership, which in turn becomes a catalyst for conversation well after the play is over.
St Mary’s In Exile plays at Queensland Theatre Company’s Bille Brown Studio until September 25, including a special ‘Night with the Artists’ on Thursday September 22.
An Auslan interpreted performance will also be held on September 15.