Saturday, May 21, 2016

'We Wait In Joyful Hope' at Theatre503, 20th May 2016

What comes to mind when you think about the Catholic Church? Corrupt old men in golden robes preaching humility? Homophobes falsifying information about birth control? Vicious n’ violent anti abortion campaigners? Creepy old priests fucking kids and the church covering it up? Actually, scratch the rest, you probably just thought about the kid fucking.

Difficult to get over that one.

But We Wait in Joyful Hope does its damndest, showing us a rare vision of the Catholic Church as a force for good rather than evil. It does this via the 70 year old Franciscan nun Sister Bernie D’Amato (Maggie McCarthy), a Che Guevera tshirt wearing, dope smoking, leftie radical who runs a women’s shelter in a deprived New Jersey city,

Bernie demolishes all expectations of what a nun should be, playwright Brian Mullin explaining that she’s a product of Pope John XXIII’s 19x2 Second Vatican Council, which resolved to ‘throw open the windows’ of the stuffy Catholic Church and engage in a still controversial modernisation. Most notably affected were nuns, some of whom, emboldened by the spirit of 1960s radicalism, ditched their habits and dug deep into the communities they were assigned to help.

We meet Bernie in the mission she’s singlehandedly run for the last 40 years. Over this time she’s seen generations of young men and women pass through, some going on to better things, most remaining mired in poverty. Still, buoyed up by her social conscience and absolute certainty that she’s doing good in the world, Bernie remains upbeat.

But trouble is on the horizon. The Harley Davidson riding, leather jacket and jeans wearing Father Grady (James Tucker) is in town with a headful of hip new ideas about turning the refuge into a “Values Centre” where deprived young women can learn to become entrepreneurs (together with a swish cafe to raise revenue). All Bernie’s hard fought progress is on the verge of being wiped away, and on top of that her kidneys are failing, requiring dialysis four times a week.

She’s aided in her fight by Felicia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), an angry and vulnerable young woman that Bernie’s trying her damndest to get to college, and Joanne (Deirdra Morris) an old friend and former nun who’s back to assist following the death of her husband.

We Wait In Joyful Sorrow is a damn great show from top to bottom. The story is affecting and inspiring, the set design is detailed without being cluttered and it’s just generally a great example of thoughtful, warm hearted stagewriting.

But above all that there’s Maggie McCarthy’s Bernie, one of the most charming, personable and pleasant to be around characters I’ve seen in ages. The play is entirely set in Bernie’s living room/kitchen above the shelter, meaning that for the most part the play feels like we’re hanging out with her and enjoying her company.

Even before she speaks it’s pretty easy to get a handle on who she is. The walls behind her are haphazardly papered with old protest posters, commanding us “DON’T BUY GRAPES AND LETTUCE!” to support farmworker’s unions, advertising a Martin Luthor King speech, an antinuclear protest or commemorating the martyrdom of the heroic Father Romero. In fact, with her penchant for hiding bags of weed inside Catholic poetry books, iconoclastic behaviour and avoidance of Mass you might wonder why on earth she became a nun in the first place.

What you eventually understand is that Bernie is far more Christian than any number of rigidly dogmatic priests and repressive nuns. Her God is out there in the world, in the way she personally tends to the most needy and desperate of her flock. Regarding the sacarments she explains “I don’t believe I need a man to access them.” and that her personal form of worship comes behind the wheel of a van; “Cutting through the darkness I ask God to drive with me. And night after night he’s carried me through til morning”.

Eventually we understand Bernie as a firm example of what a Christian should be, rather than what they often seem to be. It’s difficult to look at, say, prominent American evangelical and former Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, with his monomaniacal crusade to ban trans people from public bathrooms, fight for the rights for businesses to discriminate against gay people and call for “carpet bombing” of the Middle East and see anything in common with Jesus Christ. In Bernie you can, this unassuming and modestly living woman going through her own mini-martyrdom for the community and people she adores.

She’s played with energy and gravitas by McCarthy, who smartly teases out the tragic elements in Bernie’s generally upbeat personality. Bernie is a woman that thinks she can do anything by sheer force of will alone, yet is clearly dismayed by her body beginning to give up on her and worried about what'll happen after she's not around to take care of things. You can see Bernie’s zest for life in McCarthy, who makes it easy to imagine the young and fiery radical she once was. It’s a solidly three dimensional performance and a character I found myself missing her the moment the curtain fell.

Exactly one year before We Wait in Joyful Hope I saw a similarly excellent play about nuns in Theatre503, Sense Of An Ending, dealing the church complicity in the Rwandan genocide. That was great and so was this, both precisely the kind of focused, intelligent and carefully performed productions that make the London fringe so exciting. If this place ever puts another nun production on I’ll be there opening night! In the meantime, go check this out, you won’t be disappointed.


We Wait in Joyful Hope is at Theatre503 until 11th June

Picture by Martin Sharpe.

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