Theatre Review: Modern Jesus is a real conversation starter (at the Depot Theatre until 2nd September)

Modern Jesus is an intriguing new play that reminds us that you only need a tiny spark to start a raging inferno. It is thought-provoking look at what it means to be 20-something in Australia today, although the themes would resonate with audiences anywhere in the West. But a couple of things hold it back from being a truly great dramatic experience.

The play opens with an incident between Charlie, a young woman returning from her shift at Woolworths, and a charity collector, who so offends Charlie that she unleashes a barrage of kicks and fists on the poor bloke. The motive for her outburst becomes clearer when we meet Charlie’s boyfriend of seven years, Luke, a returned serviceman confined to a wheelchair.

Out of work and itching for something purposeful to do, beyond simply organising a party for Luke’s upcoming birthday, Charlie inspires a revolution among her friends. Drunk and high, the group don animal masks and make merry with stolen shopping trolleys for the amusement of one another, and the wider YouTube audience. Their act of rebellion sparks similar actions across the country, as Charlie morphs into the titular leader.

The actors brought together by director Chris Huntly-Turner are all strong performers, although some struggle with the more ‘preachy’ elements of the text.
As Charlie, Michelle McCowage does the best job managing the long, reflective monologues. She is not quite as charming as one may imagine necessary for the character, but she does keep the momentum going.

Philippe Klaus does a great job as the melancholy returned soldier, Luke. He is well-practised in his wheelchair and it’s almost a shock to see him standing at the conclusion of the show.

As the stoner-next-door, Matt, Ryan Madden is very convincing. His speech patterns and relaxed gait are perfect, even if the motivation for his smoke-filled life remains unclear.

Tom Nauta is the other standout performer, playing the role of curious upstairs neighbour, Jude. His impairment is obvious without being overplayed and his vocal approach is intriguing.

This is a well-produced show, with excellent sets and costuming to set the scene. The awkward dimensions of the Depot Theatre stage have been expertly leveraged to give maximum room for the actors to move, while still clearly delineating each setting. An open-framed room with a low roof extends from the back wall, representing Charlie and Luke’s council flat, dressed eclectically as one would expect from any good flat-share. On the mezzanine above resides Jude, his clothes hanging from a wire suspended across the theatre roof. In the corner is a mattress atop faux floorboards, giving a home to Jen and Matt.

The set is accompanied by a great lighting design, by Liam O’Keefe. Given the realistic nature of the text, a safer, simpler approach could have been taken, but O’Keefe has played craftily with colours and in-set lighting, creating a fascinating backdrop for the action. Also adding weight to the action is the soundtrack, curated by someone who clearly loves music. There is a (sometimes not so) hidden message in every song choice – it is very well done.

The production also utilises film and projection to great effect. Through the lens of an iPhone camera we see the revolutionaries at play, periodically interrupting the live action to drive home their message. It is well-done but sadly absent in the second act.

There are so many themes and social topics explored in Modern Jesus it’s hard to know where to start unpacking the piece. At the heart, this is a play about the manifestations of today’s youth, who’ve been raised in an era of internet stardom and high youth unemployment, and empowered by a belief that they deserve to get everything they desire. 20-somethings will see themselves, or their friends, accurately reflected back on stage, while older audiences may recall the feeling of disenchantment with the ‘real world’ they experienced after leaving uni. Think Reality Bites but for the smart-phone generation.

The play also addresses the impact that conflict in a foreign land has on those who return. ‘I did my duty, where is my parade?’ asks Luke of his military brothers, Marc and Skip. What exactly are our young men and women fighting for on the streets of Afghanistan? And if there is no discernible purpose to the war, is it not hard to imagine that our returning soldiers may feel they were just doing a job as mundane as checking groceries at Woollies?

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, Modern Jesus shows us just how easy it is for discontent to lead to something more sinister. Acts of violence in the name of foreign gods and countries are a seemingly daily occurrence all over the world. Look closely at how the characters in Modern Jesus egg each other onto greater and greater acts of rebellion and you’ll realise how easy it is for our young people to become radicalised.

Unfortunately, the play in its current iteration (it was first performed in London in 2014) is a little long. Add in the directorial decision to interrupt the building tension with an interval and an odd collection of live-performed songs and the play loses some of its power. Without giving anything away, the ending seems to come on a little strong, stretching the realms of believability a fraction too far. Further refinement of the text, which can at times be a little didactic, and a deeper focus on the core themes would raise this play to great heights.

According to the playwright, there is nothing more dangerous than the bored and educated. It is a quote that perfectly sums up the contents of the play, as well as providing a thought-provoking conversation piece to launch post-show discussions. Wonderfully current, intense and disturbing, Modern Jesus has all the makings of a great play, it just needs a little more fine-turning.

Fledgling Theatre Company’s Modern Jesus is playing at The Depot Theatre in Marrickville until 2nd September. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night on Friday 25th August.

Photo credit Liam O’Keefe

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