Bembo Davies (“Forget Zis” Experiment) interviews Alistair Newton, director and creator of:
The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhiu Superstar
• This production is conceived as the third element of a trilogy depicting various forms of religious service, how did the proposal to explore the life and myth of Mother Theresa occur?
It was partly discovering a book by Christopher Hitchens called The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice and part of it was a memory of my younger-self: I remember when Diana Spencer (the so-called People’s Princess…I guess Divine Right of King’s Princess doesn’t fit as nicely on a T-shirt…) died in the same week as Mother Teresa and I was one of those who railed on and on about how it was a travesty that everyone focused on the glamorous lady Di at the expense of pious Mother T (I’m sure you remember such people…). The genesis of the trilogy itself (which began with last year’s SummerWorks production of The Pastor Phelps Project followed by my Ecce Homo’s Rhubarb Festival production of Leni Riefenstahl vs the 20th Century) came when the Dalai Lama said he thought homosexual love was immature and needed to be grown out of. I was embarrassed not just because of the fatuous thing he had said, but because I had always regarded him as being morally and politically beyond reproach (ah, youth…). I suppose this set of three plays is my atonement for past acts of wanton credulity. I grew up without religion and I think because of that, I’ve always been fascinated by religious fundamentalism. I already took on socially unacceptable extreme Christianity (old Pastor Fred) so I wasted to explore the opposite end of the spectrum and wrestle with the acceptable – though no less terrifying – fundamentalism. I guess I’m just a sucker for that old time religious demagoguery…
• The world is full of true nuns labouring at the very edge of subsistence; do you give yours a fair shake?
It’s funny because I managed to have a drink with Hitchens while he was in town speaking at the ROM and I asked his advice on this same question about fairness and balance. He said, “It’s not about being fair. You’re an artist: give them your opinion and they will give you theirs”. I agree. That being said, In Ecce Homo Nietzsche says, “I never attack people – I make use of a person only as a kind of strong magnifying glass with which one can make visible some general but insidious and quite intangible exigency.” The show is much more about the nature and political ramifications of saintliness, and deals with Mother T’s crisis of faith. I think most people would look at the facts and say that Mother Teresa is a symbol of love, hope and charity in a cynical world and Agnes Bojaxiu (her given name) could possibly have been a nasty fundamentalist who said things like “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion” and likened condoms to murder. I think it’s much more likely that Agnes was just as flawed a human being as the rest of us, and the real problem was Mother T, the Catholic Fundamentalist Superstar. My very favourite Catholic Priest – Sinead O’Connor – said “Through their own words, they will be exposed/they’ve got a severe case of the Emperor’s New Clothes”. Every line of dialogue in the play is an actual piece of found text, so if Mother T comes off badly, it’s largely her doing (though the production numbers and blasphemous puppet ought to help…).
• Does it concern you that the very fact of this production will be used by her proponents to propel the beatification of Holy Agnes?
Interesting question! I should like to think that the Vatican keeps up with my artistic projects but I doubt it…though I suppose slander and persecution by heretics (of which I proudly count myself) has always been a prerequisite to Sainthood.
• In the current usage, your company name Ecce Homo denotes a concern for minority sexual practitioners. Your topic invites us to be carried to the very real world of Albania and Calcutta, do we in fact get much beyond Queen Street?
Firstly, I have to say that “minority sexual practitioners” is my new favourite euphemism (a place previously occupied by the Farsi word kooni which loosely translates to “one who likes to eat ass”). The name of the company actually comes from four sources: artistic – a famous series of political drawings by Weimar Republic-era Berlin artist George Grosz, philosophical – the autobiographical text by Nietzsche, religious – Pilate speaks the lines (which translate to “Behold the Man”) during the crucifixion, and sexual – I believe that my ontology is influenced in a profound way by my queerness and my art is directly tied to my ontology. This is why I always question people who prickle when they are labeled as a “gay artist”. If you accept my premise that being queer in contemporary society has an ontological effect, then I am highly suspect of an artist who would state that their art is not tied to their ontology; I would go so far as to say such a person is not a serious artist. So, I hope to cover all sorts of ground. Apologies for such liberal use of the word “ontology”…
• You threaten us with elements of Bollywood, would you say that your choice of form facilitates escapism for the masses, or does it open other doors?
My work is ruled by the principal of prodesse et delectare (politics and entertainment) so all of my aesthetic choices – be they arch camp or otherwise – are attempts to strike this balance. My production designer Matt Jackson and I always strive to ensure that the visual image has equal weight to the spoken text, music, and dance; it’s a total expression I’m after. As for escapism, I want my audience to be engaged with mind, heart, and body…hopefully simultaneously.
• Your cast line-up is interesting: one identifiable character and eight ensemble players; could you reveal the directorial ploys used to deepen the ensemble’s exploration of the piece’s themes.
It can be a challenge to communicate abstract and/or political ideas which are personal to the writer to an ensemble of actors but I believe it is important for the actors to find aspects of the politics being espoused to connect with. I would never expect my actors to blindly adopt my specific politics, and I also wouldn’t want someone to compromise their morals by performing in one of my pieces. It is, however, crucially important that everyone find ways to connect intellectually, emotionally, and yes, even spiritually. The ensemble for this piece comes from different cultural, ethnic, religious, and artistic backgrounds and traditions; some might connect to the piece’s exploration of the connection between missionary work and colonialism, others might connect as lapsed Catholics themselves, but the variety of experiences and voices in the mix add immeasurably to the final product.
• Theatre and religious ritual are inextricably entwined, how far dare you go in offering the audience a religious experience?
I’ve been researching the darkest and most reactionary elements of Catholic dogma for many, many months but I still get goose bumps every time I hear the ensemble sing the Catholic hymns which are a part of the score. I may be quite a strident atheist, but I do believe in the transcendent and the numinous. In my more naïve and open-hearted moments, I’ve always believed in the theatre as a kind of secular church.
• Similarly, a good theatre proposal expands in girth under development, have you learnt anything cogent from the good woman herself, and to what degree is the production counting upon a miracle?
She may have taken money from criminals like Charles Keating, heaped praise on despots like the Duvalier’s of Haiti, prayed at the grave of the Stalinist murders of Greater Albania, played nice with Ron and Nancy Reagan, begged Maggie Thatcher to outlaw abortion, campaigned for a law against contraception and divorce in Ireland, and believed that the hideous suffering of the poor was a gift from God, but even she had the courage to admit, at the height of her crisis of faith, that she might not have believed a word of the dogma either. I recently tattooed my body with the line from Horace’s epistle “sapere aude” (“dare to know”); it might be nice to live in world that contains pious saints who exist in a world beyond politics and above moral reproach. But, so long as I live in a world where abortion clinic murders are a regular occurrence, then I will gladly take Mother T’s advice and actively question faith.