The Chapel Perilous

Julia Christensen as Sally Banner is tremendous.
The Chapel Perilous

 The Chapel Perilous by Dorothy Hewett. photograph by Bob Seary.

The Chapel Perilous is a riveting, volatile production of Dorothy Hewett’s now rarely seen, iconic play written in 1971 and which is rightly regarded as a modern Australian classic. Hewett explores the imaginative possibility of language and its rhythms and incorporated theatrical effects and music into her plays. Hewett imagined the play to include a chorus of 30 – but here there are nine in the cast. Musically there are references to Jerusalem and The Red Flag among others as well as Land of Hope and Glory, In The Sweet By and By.

The Chapel Perilous acquires its title from Arthurian legend, a site of a hero (or heroine’s) greatest trial and ultimate transformation – here it becomes a quest where Sally must confront her ghosts. 

With assured direction by Carissa Licciardello, Sally Banner’s life and times explode riotously onto the stage with strong vibrant performances from a magnificent cast. Set in the context of Australia’s changing social landscape in the late 1940s-1950s (or thereabouts) we follow Sally’s coming-of-age story as a rebellious bohemian, Communist, feminist, mother, reluctant wife, lover and author and her search for personal and artistic freedom.

At the heart of Hewett’s semi-autobiographical, freewheeling play is the conflict between the constricting attitudes of a conservative society and the Catholic church and Sally’s rocky, defiant journey making lots of unfortunate mistakes and wrong choices through adolescence to adulthood and self-discovery. Sally will not be constrained by The Rules that govern ‘normal’ society (as exemplified by her stern, restrictive parents and Sister Rosa and The Canon) and she will not bow at the altar in the school chapel. The play is sharply critical of authority figures such as the Headmistress and the Canon.

Hewett’s play blends vaudeville, comedy, drama, musical theatre and panoramic social realism in an epic, ground breaking and thought provoking work.  Sally's turbulent life creates damage for which she is held to account in a theatrical trial that is the chilling, emotionally wrenching finale of the play (or could it be a nightmare Sally has?) questioning her decisions.

The imposing, angular and somewhat futuristic set of The Chapel with  large stone altar and triangular laser light entrance, was brilliantly evoked in Kyle Jonsson’s design, which allows for many fluid scene and locale changes.  

Sally herself is given a luminous, finely nuanced performance by Julia Christensen. At times she is buoyant and defiant, giddy with love, joy and inspiration, at others grieving and  almost crushed. Sally is full of steely resolve to be herself and fiery sexuality.

All the men in Sally’s life are charismatically played by dashing, handsome Tom Matthews in a fine performance.

Beautiful red haired Meg Clarke doubles wonderfully as Sally’s first school girl crush Judith and the harsh, cold and angry twisted Sister Rosa.

As her restrictive, ever anxious and prying parents Brett Heath and Alison Chambers are excellent. Chambers doubles as the fussy, repressive headmistress and Heath as the scary, imposing yet secretly lecherous Canon.

Defiant, with lots of romantic imagery and poetry Sally is a typical Hewett heroine representing the victory of freedom and sexuality over the constant harsh forces of repressive society. The New Theatre on the main street of Newtown was a home of the Left and, from the early 30s, a Communist one. So this glorious, inspiring performance of Hewett’s classic seems to suit perfectly.

The Chapel Perilous

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Director Carissa Licciardello
Production Designer Kyle Jonsson
Lighting Designer Martin Kinnane
Costume Designer Courtney Westbrook
Sound Designer Clemence Williams
Musical Director Alexander Lee-Rekers
Assistant Director Eve Beck
Assistant Production Designer Ella Butler
Stage Manager Shushannah Anderson

Courtney Bell, Alison Chambers, Julia Christensen,
Meg Clarke, Jasper Garner-Gore, Brett Heath,
Madelaine Osborn, Tom Matthews, James Wright

Lynne Lancaster

Monday 1 May, 2017

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.