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Catherine at Avignon

Catherine at Avignon
Writer: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Daniela Giorgi
Meraki Arts Bar
August 11-19, 2023

Subtlenuance’s return production of Paul Gilchrist’s Catherine at Avignon is very relevant in the wake of Greta Thunberg’s challenge to world leaders to act on climate change. While sainthood may not be of special concern to the modern world, the courage, integrity and persistence of women who speak the truth is inspirational.

Catherine of Siena, a 14th century ascetic, mystic and activist, not only made it her mission to care for society’s outcasts – the poor, the sick and imprisoned – but later travelled throughout northern and central Italy calling for the reform of the clergy. She was eventually drawn into the politics of her time out of a strong desire to bring peace to her fractured country believing the solution to be the return of the pope from Avignon to Rome.

Gilchrist’s sympathetic but not sentimental characterisation of Catherine takes up her story upon her arrival in Avignon to seek an audience with Pope Gregory XI. While historical accounts debate the role of Catherine in influencing Gregory’s eventual decision to return the papacy to Rome, Gilchrist’s dramatisation shows her to be influential not so much through her attempts to persuade through argument but through the passion and honesty of her being.

Shawnee Jones who plays the role of Catherine is an inspired choice. She has the meditative pose and expression of a Raphael madonna at one time, again at another she exhibits an almost childlike exuberance while at another her anguish and uncertainty predominate. Right at this very significant moment in her quest for peace, it seems, her voices, her spiritual guides have deserted her, leaving her bereft but no less convinced as to the rightness of her mission.

Opposing the efforts of Catherine, is the admirably villainous Cardinal de Courville (Shaw Cameron) trying to trap her into statements that will allow her to be tried for heresy.  Cameron gives the wily Cardinal conviction as he strikes where Catherine’s assertion of mystical authority is most easily made suspect. In his efforts he is supported by the cold and sophisticated Lady Marguerite, whose mixture of servility to men and cynicism is chillingly conveyed by Romney Hamilton.

The other actors in the drama, the indecisive but regal Gregory (Richard Cotter), lacking in the very quality that Catherine possesses, and the uneducated but streetwise, pretty Eloise (Rosie Meader) who has a plan of her own, and the not quite sterling silver Raymond of Capua (John Michael Narres), Catherine’s confessor, inhabit their roles convincingly. Both Cotter and Cameron double as strolling players with comical, irreverent dialogue in private and on-stage biblical narratives, and whose profession poses a question. We are all, like Catherine, actors in a larger drama not of our making so how should we play our part?

Again, can Raymond as biographer of Catherine be partial in describing events he has witnessed?  Played with beguiling ingenuousness by Narres, hasn’t he a vested interest?

The simple staging and costuming fits well with concept of strolling players as small theatre with little effects but strong directorial conviction might be closer to the needs of its time.

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