Stefan Keller, Desert Phenomenon, Pixabay

Art and theatre have for over a century generally been anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. Religion has been, for the most part, pro established-orders and pro-authority over the same period. No matter what culture, these observations seem to apply! In some cases, such as in Iran, religion and establishment are intertwined just as in medieval European cultures and in the US today where every political persuasion needs approval from the god-fearing masses. Over the century, art and theatre have diverged from religious fervour in many ways. Yet it is surprising how much they converge. And how both religion and the arts ironically have basically similar premises.

The Abomination that is the movie "Jesus of Nazareth"

To begin this discussion, let us look at how contemporary artistic expression has depicted religious themes in the Western tradition. We might consider cinema, art and theatre.

A most sickening and soul-destroying theatrical screen work one could contemplate watching is Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth". Seeing famous actors using their cynical tricks over six hours to fake any semblance of authenticity in portraying potentially psychotic characters is a lesson in artistic charlatanism. Zeffirelli might have gained considerable credit as a director and innovator for some of his movies, but this piece of rubbish loses him all credibility. It is an abomination in terms of both religion and the arts. It unashamedly seeks a euro-centric Christian distortion using imagery, context and sentimental performances worthy of high-school kids at the Christmas pageant. It is art that extols a particular cultural hegemony that, at best is an affirmation of our romantic past, and at worst is a recipe for fascism.

In support of this statement, just note Robert Powell's sultry eyes and smug expressions when confronted with questioning. The director has him conforming to renaissance era painting imagery as if in a music video clip. You almost can hear REM doing "Losing My Religion" with every scene. You almost want to smack him in the face for his glib responses. There is nothing real in Powell's performance. Instead at every turn he is responding to a renaissance painting image! And if this isn't enough, then squirm at the apologetic performances of Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Michael York and James Mason as they struggle to make something of the pithy script. Pathetic! And I wonder if they ever lived it down ... though probably it was never an issue as few dared attack the Jesus of the TV series ...

Zeffirelli may not be a charlatan of film. He had genuine successes. Fortunately he had personal failures as well.

For instance he never did get to see women get the death penalty for having abortions in Italy. As a member of the Italian Parliament, Zeffirelli called for the death penalty to be applied to women who had abortions. He never got to see women being killed for this reason and no doubt this was a life's disappointment for him.

The Critical Quandary Emanating from "Jesus of Nazareth"

Firstly, Zeffirelli's desire to see women executed for wanting control of their bodies is not unique. It is not essentially a religious thing. Yet it points to deeper issues that relate to the energies that give rise to both religion and art. Zeffirelli's portrayal of Jesus as a mimetic image from renaissance paintings rather than as a human figure that had enormous impact probably results from that same sub-conscious yearning that causes religion and art to seek an alignment of observed reality and lived experience with an imagined over-arching possibility that one can never fully know nor achieve. It is that same premises that draws together equally abstract knowledge to make metaphorical understandings into concrete intellectual sculptures and literature; as in religion.

"Jesus of Nazareth" might have provided a powerful vehicle for exploration into deep faith and the spirit of creative invention and reinvention. For instance there is much in the gospels that might have thrown a more real and more relevant exploration of why religion has a place at all; why spirituality tries to make invisible and significant holds over human endeavour!

Let us consider the Gospel according to Matthew 34 or Luke 12. In these chapters Jesus is quoted to the effect:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."

The power of regeneration and creative struggle is an element in religious practice and thinking. And we find it in religious writing. This suggestion of creative struggle and the need to overturn all one's upbringing, culture and past allegiance is not peculiar to religion. Art has been through many such transformative phases and creative struggle is an essential part of artistic practice in theatre and art. While not directly attacking the Old Testament, the sword required in the above statement expressed warfare of an internal and relational struggle necessary to adopt new thinking that contradicted the past. Later Islamic traditions of Jihad might represent similar such elements.

Religion begins in abstraction as does art. Whether it requires sacrifice of a goat or a virgin girl to placate some unseen power that potentially brings terror or sustenance! Or whether it requires some form of sacrament or prayer to create an equilibrium in the observable universe! In the case of art and theatre, there is an artifice created that is representative or presenting of a physical manifestation of an idea, an ideal, a relationship or a sequence of events derived from imagination or real experience.

Yet the terror resulting from the unknown causes the seeking of solace in one's own image; an image that places the personal at the centre of the universe! Thus god is a reflection of our own image. The seemingly inexplicable becomes manageable as "enlightened" individuals provide concrete depictions of existence beyond the observable and lived experience. Narcissus becomes religion and religion becomes Narcissus almost denying any sense of spirituality beyond mirror images of one's limited imaginative conceptions.

The quandary for the artist creating within the religious and religious art traditions is one of how to broach the boundaries of cultural conceptions while being able to truly penetrate the origins of dogmas and moral codes. Zeffirelli opted for an extreme form of Eurocentric narcissism in order to shape his six hour long screen precis of the biblical story of Jesus. His conforming to unexamined mental and painted imagery as an adjunct to a precis of biblical referencing meant this work denied any form of spirituality or mystery!

This said, one must question as to whether any form of artistic expression that aims to affirm a particular cultural view of abstracted belief systems can do anything different! Culture, art and religion are ultimately progressions into various degrees of narcissism. To penetrate such gravitation within culture, art and religion requires the motivation and jolting prescription to jar and cut through the encasing mirrors of perception that surround the personal consumption or practice. Or perhaps it requires a process of stepping back from the equilibrium and allow for a kind of time-out or distance from such every-day experience.

In practice though, even with this jolt and stepping out, the result is likely to be the replacement of one such narcissistic imagery with another; such imagery to inform the trajectory of beliefs then formed into cultural precepts! It is a mistake to see religion and art as essentially irrational. From the point of view of narcissistic perceptions, they are perfectly rational. If god is within us, then it is perfectly reasonable to paint and picture god as looking like us. If art is an expression of how we feel and what we sense of the universe around us, no doubt the product will be like our reflection in the water. If such reality is shared within a culture then it is rational to enforce the view and see it reinforced through image representation and through social semiology and ritual.

When culture, art and religion engage even minimal processes for challenging and jarring this narcissistic tendency they each may hold the key to seeing and opening up the wider universe of existence. The concern is that those who hold the potential for doing just this, are in many, if not most, instances the prime controllers of the status quo and the guardians of smoke and mirrors that exemplify the narcissism of art, religion and ultimately of culture.

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Memory of Me by agsandrew shutterstock_621487832 .jpg

In 1972 I was organising the Orientation Week at Brisbane's Mount Gravatt Teachers' College which later merged into Griffith University. But in 1972 it was a small minion for the Bjelke-Peterson Government in Queensland. I had organised to bring in three special guest speakers: Zelman Cowen (then Vice Chancellor of University of Queensland), Ray Whitrod (Qld Police Commissioner) and Qld Liberal Senator Neville Bonner. Hardly radical speakers who might upset the conservative apple-cart! Yet I, and my student organising colleague, were brought in to meet with the College Principal Mr Nimmo to "explain". His eyes were blazing and the anger was palpable. He raged at us. "How dare you?" he snaked at us. "How dare you". Now I am not sure how many times this phrase was repeated. But then it came: "How dare you put on the same platform as the distinguished Zelma Cowen and Ray Whitrod ... a 'BLACK MAN': Neville Bonner?"

I can assure you I have never forgotten this moment and how it crystalized so much for me as a future educator and artistic activist. Here was a person of power and influence expressing such a reactionary and racist thought. But this wasn't the only incident that helped shape a life-long attitude for me.

Some time later in the year, I wanted to bring out a speaker to address issues of "self-management" as a social and political movement; particularly in relation to Aboriginal rights in light of the newly formed "Tent Embassy" in Canberra. Initially I wanted to do it legitimately with an administration sanctioned event. However, once again, I was brought in to meet Mr Nimmo; only this time, Mr Walker, the Deputy, was also present. The tone was different. I was treated well; even offered a nice small glass of port liquor. I put my case to bring out radical activist, Brian Laver, as a speaker. Mr Nimmo smiled and with a wry expression pointed out to me: "Joe, you and I can discuss these issues but you can't expect seventeen year olds straight out of school to ..."

So there it was. Laid out clearly to me was the need for authority to hide information and to restrain critical thinking and action where it crossed the often hidden agendas of power elites. The semantics of "free speech" and developing "critical and creative thinking" become weapons to disguise and hide the real powers and structures that aim to do just the opposite. Those two moments I experienced as a twenty-year old student at Mt Gravatt Teacher's College did more to clarify and shape my work as a teacher, artist, director than virtually all that followed.

And so now I direct "The Trojan Women" by Euripides and adapted by the cast from DTC. The cluttered visions and the cacophonous noise of twenty-first century narcissism negates the critical silence needed to stop and feel the weight of manufactured realities that deceive and destroy. The Taliban in Afghanistan have banned girls from schools; blatantly consolidating the dehumanising of women and reducing humanity to bargaining objects. Nimmo's rage at a Black Man speaking on a podium with "distinguished" white men distilled that white supremacist rage at being challenged; then to bar students from being able to see the arguments and discuss the social dimensions of such thinking only reinforced the lie of education being for the well-being of all society.

Euripides knew these same things over two thousand years ago. A year 11 student from last year, Amy Goedecke, suggested we put on "The Trojan Women" as a wake-up call. So here it is. With students doing all their own interpreting, research and adapting to today's world and seeking comparisons in the play's content with the situation in Afghanistan, the production exhibits an organic response that theatre creation rarely sees. Seventeen year old students and younger well and truly were able to discuss and process this information and the world views on display. Wynter Grainger took on the role of Dramaturg while supported by Amy, and fellow past student members, Tilly Watson, Lillia Bank, Georgie Wiley and Jack Curry. While my role has been to shape the work and provide artistic direction and facilitation and challenge, I hope that in this instance and in all my work I have never been a Nimmo and hopefully, never will be a Nimmo!

After all our efforts, I know the audience will feel the critical silence of The Old Chapel Studio space that makes room for critical and creative reflection and future thinking ...

My gratitude goes out to all members of the DTC staff, Daramalan staff,

cast and crew. Special thanks also to Michael Castrission, Ayaz Pazhohish and Helen Musa.

Joe Woodward

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Daramalan Theatre Company former student actors in cinematic aspects of "The Trojan Women" theatre production

When we visit the theatre we might so often wonder "why bother"? Seeing standard theatre fare done in a standard theatre style dating particularly to the 1950s with stock set changes and vocal articulations that emanate from somewhere near Oxford or Cambridge ... god ... why bother? Theatre is much more. Isn't it? The social justice of artistic persuasion is so often denied in practice as the initial impulse of Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw is bastardised into the cultural hegemony of the ironic class of supercilious intellectual snobbery and semantic demarcations. I mean what footy fan would go to theatre to see some emotionally challenged production of some English, American or Irish play devoid of any real connection to the world today?

So, forgetting about footy fans, might we consider the function of a theatre presentation that links myth with the reality of misogyny in cultures today. More specifically, let us connect the Ancient Greek play "The Trojan Women" by Euripides with the mythic and the reality of very similar events that are taking place today in Afghanistan.

"The Trojan Women" in 2022

Amy Goedecke as Cassandra in "The Trojan Women"

Being political in school contexts is not normally encouraged. I've been told that even doing Brecht in some schools is discouraged. I personally received a most insulting letter from a parent who challenged my company's choice of "Mother Courage and Her Children" in 2019. The suggestion that schools might discourage anti-war sentiments goes back a long way while our nation promotes involvement in wars wherever it can: eg. The Boer War, WW1, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc ... where-ever our allied masters suggest we go, Australia has landed. War is seen as a kind of necessity to promote mate-ship, honour, cultural values, the national spirit, patriotism etc etc! I mean how could there be a "NATION" without war as its foundation?

So schools historically have been silenced in any encouragement of critical assessment and evaluation of contexts, motivations and eventualities of war. This certainly applies to any evaluation of the extent to which women have been abused, raped and otherwise damaged by Australian forces in wars overseas or on our own land in the events surrounding the massacres and warfare with Aboriginal nations up until the 1920s. So a choice to develop and present a production of "The Trojan Women" by Euripides with reference to the Afghanistan take-over by the Taliban must consider the ramifications.

Pro-Am and Student Production

Former student members of DTC working on cinematic sections of the production

Daramalan Theatre Company bridges the current student body with past students now working in allied and related industries. The complexity of merging an ancient Greek play with the current world situation required additional inputs and skills beyond the resources of the school. Professional actor, Jack Curry, along with Tertiary students Wynter Grainger, Lillia Bank, Georgie Wiley and Joey Gardiner have added very considerable maturity to the work. In addition, Tilly Watson, now a Registered Nurse and a former Assistant Director of the Company has joined again to provide powerful professional assistant and role modelling. Katie Woodward, with a significant performance career involving Butoh, Burlesque and Theatre performance, provided detailed Movement coaching and opened up whole areas of performance for the cast.

If a company comprised of young people is going to be political and presenting theatre as a call to action, then they have to be good ... and very good. One can get away with naïve performances of standard and stock productions and people will accept them from students. However, once you step up into the political and social arena where you are offering a call to action, you MUST be very good and professional in what you do.

DTC has taken decisive action in developing strategies to ensure a distinctive quality in a potentially controversial work. The goal is for a professional standard work that will be up to the audience to judge and follow up with action inspired by the performance.

Unlike theatre

Yes indeed! "The Trojan Women" by Euripides is as much a ceremony as it is theatre. The intensity engendered by the young cast will be like few performances seen in Canberra over recent years. All cast members are committed to the call to action; and are unapologetic in utilising theatre to provoke and challenges communities for action.

Joe Woodward

PS. The bar opens for pre-show drinks 30 minutes prior to performance.

"The Trojan Women" by Euripides and adapted by the DTC cast,

directed by Joe Woodward with music by Jo Philp

23, 27, 28, 29. 30 April at 7.30pm and 30 April at 1.00pm Old Chapel Studio

Daramalan College

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