The Last Priest – Independent Catholic News review

Atheist and priest: a new play on the life of Fr Jean Meslier

Lovers of intellectual thought and religious dissention are gathering at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington.

The Last Priest, a new play by David Walter Hall, focuses on the life of Father Jean Meslier, a little-known 17th century French Catholic priest who wrote a bitter atheistic testament at the end of his life ­after serving his parish well for 40 years. It was only after his death when the manuscript was discovered that the utter contradiction of his life as a Catholic priest was revealed. Not only did he denounce all religion, he argued the superiority of atheist morality.

The play is a vivid and thought-provoking realisation of Meslier’s socialism and atheistic beliefs played out through discussions with his closest friends and juxtaposed by dream-like discussions with Voltaire, who in his time had praised Meslier as a hero of the Enlightenment.

Julian Bird as Meslier delivers a passionate and absorbing performance, strongly supported by Angela Koo and Maxwell Hutcheson, who both bring vigour and warmth to their roles.

The performances are accompanied by cellist Deborah Chandler and the team deserve a mention for the atmospheric design of the production in this cosy theatre.

Frances Dodd

Meslier – Edinburgh Evening News review

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

HISTORICAL drama, based on real people and events, can be risky. There’s always the temptation to overburden a script with facts and figures, in an attempt to lend credibility to the “factional” account – or to overdramatise and ignore the truth in pursuit of a good sexy yarn. David Hall’s masterful storytelling suffers from no such failings, as it stays on the issues and focuses on the emotions of his characters.

Jean Meslier, “encouraged” into the catholic priesthood by his parents at a young age was, in fact, an atheist who had no respect for the church at that time. He spent long, late nights writing his testament – a polemic which would later partially inspire the French Revolution, and which would not be published in his lifetime. Meslier then took his own life once his testament was finished.

Hall extrapolates on these bare bones, adding depth in the form of his housekeeper and his lifelong colleague and friend, Father Claude Buffier. Julian Bird becomes Meslier. The authority with which he speaks and his presence is entirely convincing. Prentis Hancock as Buffier and Angela Koo as Meslier’s housekeeper, Delphine, effortlessly supports Bird.

Director David Roylance infuses an already intense play with a dark, fearsome claustrophobia, making it entirely compelling.

Meslier

A piece originally published on the website Textualities by the play’s director David Roylance. The original is here.

I would like, and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes, I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest. Jean Meslier

roylanced01pic3.jpg There are two stories to the play Meslier. First the extraordinary story of Jean Meslier himself, a man virtually unknown outside his home country, France, and a man who unknowingly fanned the flames of a movement that would change the shape of Western Europe forever. Second is the fascinating story of how this play came about.

My name is David Roylance and I am a theatre director. Born and bred in Edinburgh, I find it a real treat and a privilege to be able to return home most Augusts and deliver a piece of theatre to my home city. This year I have directed Meslier by David Hall, from an idea by Julian Bird and Colin Brewer. It has been produced by Abreaction Theatre Company and will be playing in Sweet Venue’s Edinburgh College of Art in the Cabaret space every night at 8.30pm from the 14-27 August.

roylanced01pic2.jpg Jean Meslier (1664-1729) was a Catholic priest in the poor country parish of Etripigny in the Ardennes, where he remained until his death. He was a dutiful priest, beloved by his flock, living in virtual poverty through his entire working life – and secretly was the most ardent atheist.

He did not believe a word of the book he preached from. He wrote his own book, a Testament that he left us on his deathbed, having hastened his own death after finishing his work. His Testament is a vicious and uncompromising attack on all forms of organised religion and the divine right of kings and the aristocracy.

By his own admission, within the Testament, Meslier was a coward. Since the punishment for preaching atheism was burning alive at the stake this is perhaps something we can understand and empathise with. As the director of the play I find it interesting that we are bringing this story to Edinburgh, the home of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man in the United Kingdom to be hanged for preaching atheism.

Meslier died so his Testament could live. He spoke to us from beyond the grave, despite not believing in any afterlife at all. Eventually his work reached Voltaire, who was very impressed with its passionate fervour and sentiment (despite his criticism of the writing style). Voltaire bowdlerised Meslier’s Testament, turning it into a deist document rather than an atheist one and he downplayed the criticism of the monarchy. The text, as you guess from the above quote, provoked strong reaction and contributed to the French Revolution.

roylancep01pic1.jpgThe play has been constructed around understanding a man who lived one life by day and another at night. Unlike Deacon Brodie or any of his gothic literary offshoots, Meslier was a passionate defender of a moral code during the day and a fighter for the proletariat during the night. No hedonistic alter ego for this man. In the play we see him through the eyes of his closest friend, Father Claude Buffier, a career churchman and politician who was almost diametrically opposed to Meslier’s ideals. We also see him through the eyes of a woman we named Delphine, who Meslier took into his house as a teenager and educated. She was his housekeeper. We know that these two people did exist. Unfortunately we do not know much more than that. However, as dramatists that has left us a freer hand to create our own understanding of what this man’s life might have been like.

The second story in this tale is how the play came to be. My old friend Julian Bird came to me in January of this year with an outline of Meslier’s life written by fellow psychiatrist Dr Colin Brewer. Julian asked me if I thought the Meslier story had real theatrical potential. Julian is a psychiatrist who turned actor nearly four years ago. Having grown up in an artistic household with a mother who was an actress and father who was a painter, he felt the urge to return to his artistic roots, bringing to bear his unique professional insight. Colin Brewer is one of his closest friends; they have known each other since they trained as psychiatrists together, thus slightly echoing the friendship of two of our major characters.

I told Colin and Julian that the story oozed with potential so they decided to find a writer to turn their idea into a script. Eventually they met with David Hall, author of last year’s Fringe success Cross Road Blues, (a play that received a five star review in the Scotsman) and after an initial exchange of ideas and scenes he was commissioned to put flesh on the creation. It was immediately clear that David writes things for real human beings to say – we have been enormously lucky in finding a writer of this quality.

Three fine actors of talent also grace the play. Bird is playing Meslier himself, Angela Koo is Delphine, and Scottish actor Prentis Hancock completes the team as Father Claude Buffier.

Meslier’s story deserves to be heard and remembered. Politically and philosophically he played his part in a movement that has radically changed the way we think and live our lives. Perhaps without Jean Meslier, there would have been no David Hume.

© David Roylance 2006

Cross Road Blues – Scotsman review

Blues Singer vs. Soul Man
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

A TALE of a Faustian pact at the dark heart of the blues, this seductive drama crackles with diabolic menace. More myth than man, Robert Johnson died, poisoned in a bar at just 26, with only a few recordings to his name. But his reputation as the guitarist who sold his soul for greatness became the blues’ sinister underscore. In the prickly heat of a Deep South night, against a backdrop of racial tension, lynchings and voodoo, this superb single-act play brings his legendary sacrifice howling and moaning to life.

Squatting at a crossroads, Johnson (Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah) is a journeyman musician with a terrible past, desperate enough to test the fable of the big black man with the gift of songwriting who appears at midnight to tune guitars. But the gentleman (Adam Bisno) who squats beside him is white and educated, alternately beguiling and intimidating, proffering whisky, cigarettes and a terrible story of miscegenate love that destroys itself. He drags the younger man’s life story from him and convinces him that real music is born in defiance of God – it is the soul’s release from imprisonment. The frightened Johnson complains that the stranger would like to read him like a book, but, in truth, he has already been played like an instrument, his ambition and fear of persecution deliciously manipulated. You will never enjoy equality, so what price posterity, asks the demon.

The outcome is, of course, never in doubt. But the precocious David Hall, who wrote the play when he was just 19, creates an atmosphere of creeping, uncanny terror that grips from the start and never relinquishes. Through the charged poetry of the dialogue he evokes slavery’s ensnaring legacy and, through one man’s existential nightmare, the protesting quality of the blues. While Bisno initially appears too fresh-faced and slight for a tormentor, his darting eyes and sly smile quickly convince otherwise. Asiedu-Mensah is equally impressive, a well-built man who appears physically to shrink as the play progresses. And the denouement, in which Johnson sinks to his knees and sings his woe even as the devil unleashes a triumphal stream of verse, is mesmerising.

Jay Richardson

Cross Road Blues – Edinburgh Guide review

In the superstitious world of the American deep south, there have long been stories about an association between exceptional talent and possession by other-worldly powers. Robert Johnson, the now legendary King of the Delta Blues, died very young, apparently poisoned by a jealous woman, but then and now there remain rumours about his deal with the devil.

This brilliant and stylish two-hander, written and directed by David Hall, depicts Johnson, played by Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah, waiting at a cross-roads at midnight. From the shadows a white man, Adam Bisno, appears, offers him a cigarette and tells him a story. He does not give his name, but he is happy to talk, and Johnson in time overcomes his natural suspicions. And his life is changed forever.

This is a moving and graphic depiction of 1930s America, skilfully directed, and excellently acted by the two young performers.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – TCS review

Sinful Delights

THE DELICIOUSLY melancholic sounds of Cassandra Wilson singing “Love is Blindness” surrounds the figure of “the Sinner Lady”, an endearingly vulnerable figure sitting uncomfortably on a bed, holding a glass of wine and bowing her head in an ambiguous gesture of submission and resolution. The scene is set for a gentle exploration of love and faithfulness that watches the fortune of an unnamed prostitute as she decides that, this evening, her life will change. When hopeful trick Jim Whitney, an average bloke in every respect enters her bedroom, in lieu of the economic trading of cash for sex, something simultaneously rupturing and life-affirming occurs: they actually talk to each other. What follows is an intriguing hour of dialogue in which we find out what really motivates these characters, challenging our preconceptions of what constitutes a successful relationship.

Gavin Kermack is magnificent as Whitney, a character so genuinely nice that in response to the Sinner Lady’s determined exclamation “Fuck me like I’m dying”, he meekly replies “This isn’t really helping…”. Kermack gives the character a warmth and honesty that immediately draws the audience’s affections and makes the rapidly developing relationship between Whitney and the prostitute conceivable. Jenny Clark is equally brilliant as the trapped prostitute breaking free from a life she no longer wishes to lead. Clark’s high, plummy voice and diminutive figure crystallise her childish playfulness and inquisitiveness. No props were needed to emphasise her girlish helplessness (though we were of course given one, a teddy bear which she hastily shoves under the bed when her guest arrives. This inherent youthfulness and innocence crucially maintains the ambivalence of her status as prostitute, and makes the subject of sex uncompromisingly ugly on the occasions when it raises its head above the surface talk of love and genuine connection Patrick Gleeson is grotesque as the finger-twitching, facial-ticking Charles. His towering figure dwarfs his co-actors, but his desperate hunching and insect-like squirming undermines any authority his height might proffer. He scuttles around like a pantomime sidekick clawing helplessly for a love he cannot grasp.

Little has changed script-wise since its workshop by the Marlowe Society’s Scriptlab, but writer/director David Hall has certainly found greater depth in his work. However, despite the tightness of the script and its subject matter, there is nothing intense about the performance. The centre of this fairly plot-less narrative is character. Every movement and word is convincing, and there is a disturbing reality about the relationships we witness. The play makes no sweeping attempts to tackle ancient grand themes (though there is an embarrassingly explicit nod of gratitude toward Plato), nor does it presume to answer the big questions that dominate our age. Indeed, in the most part it does not even acknowledge those questions. It is quite simply a complexly intriguing and subtle character study that competently delves into the inner mechanics of its characters without resorting to dialogue riddled with psychobabble. This is a must-see gem of a production, containing some of the best acting and most insightful direction you are likely to see this term.

Alexander Williams