Review: CATHEDRAL at The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review By Lisa Lanzi


There is much to unpack in this production. Caleb Lewis’ writing is hauntingly poetic, in a truly epic sense, tracking one man’s life, generational trauma and relationships, and multiple locations both on earth and beneath the sea. In 85 minutes one actor immerses the audience in story and a journey shifting time and location in a series of flashbacks as nitrogen narcosis, also known as depth intoxication or rapture of the deep, influences consciousness.


Cathedral is a joint production from State Theatre Company South Australia and Country Arts SA in association with Flinders University. Lewis also credits diving luminaries like Dr Richard Harris, and others, for sharing

their knowledge and experience of the mostly hidden watery world beneath our earthly habitat. It is also apparent that Lewis has undertaken a prodigious amount of research so that deep sea diving terminology and facts blend into the story, not in a didactic sense, but in a way that allows us to intimately inhabit the Clay’s existence.


In this play, water is the symbolic connective element. The first scene has solo actor Nathan O’Keefe on stage speaking a poem about the loss of his (Clay’s) twin in utero and the enormous wrench at the time of birth “… already you’re forgetting about your brother, who never left the water.” The character’s connection to water carries us through situations of loss and death, grief, change, friendship and camaraderie, trauma and redemption. From the relationship with Clay’s grandfather ‘Pop’ where a love of fishing, swimming and diving is cemented to the dangers of deep sea commercial diving in the distant North Sea. There is also his mother’s mysterious disappearance where only a pile of clothing by the jetty marks her absence to instances of near drowning whether by accident or design.


Geology too is a symbol as fragments of information about South Australia’s Limestone Coast are interspersed with memories and generational stories and how that history might influence the present. “This whole coast. It’s haunted by a billion, billion ghosts. We are all living on bones.” Lewis’ phrase “A mantle of bones” conveys the strong image of weight upon our shoulders from familial and subconscious burdens. The play is inspired by the famous, and infamous, Piccaninnie Ponds as well as a personal story from his childhood. The “Pics” are an internationally famous mecca for divers, drawn by tales of crystal-clear water, yawning chasms and vast underwater ‘cathedrals’ flooded with ‘godlight’. As the memories unfold and the journey of loss and grief progresses, the geography of the play shifts from Mount Gambier to Thailand, the North Sea, Aberdeen, and Northern England.


As well as the delight of an exclusively south Australian creative team, it is wonderful to note that a female director is on board for this project and fascinating to read of the deep research she undertook prior to rehearsals. Shannon Rush has shaped the play to work well upon a small, affecting set and directs the physical components beautifully. Having one actor and a dense, wordy tale to tell is a challenge that she has met admirably. The aim was to create a sensorial experience for the audience which is accomplished with the integration of design elements; reactions were certainly palpable as flutters of unease or humour dispersed throughout the three-sided viewing space.


Kathryn Sproul was responsible for set and costume design that had to be tour-ready and “pack into a 3 tonne truck” so that two touring technicians can efficiently manage the set up when the production travels to Mount Gambier, Renmark, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta and Port Pirie. The costume is a stylized wetsuit with various technical accoutrements to suit the action. The set consists of a sculptural backdrop inspired by the real deep water area called The Cathedral (at The Pics) with a jetty structure on two levels. Lighting and video designer Mark Oakley has created an ethereal atmosphere where water ingeniously appears below and around the set through various lighting devices. Projection is also used but at times was not as convincing as it might have been - the underwater vision was the most successful.


The most effectual component was contributed by sound designer and composer Andrew Howard. The very low frequency rumble of underwater sound effects was appropriately disturbing while at other times, the sound levels competed a little too much with the actor voicing the text, as creative and dazzling as they undoubtedly were.


Huge kudos are due actor Nathan O'Keefe for such a focussed performance with vocal clarity and excellent physicality. O’Keefe is very familiar to Adelaide audiences for his many main stage appearances and is overall a fine, technical performer in this marathon performance. There were moments when I would have preferred to more gently hear and experience the writer’s words rather than have O’Keefe pour overly much emotion into the execution. This would have provided more satisfying contrasts against the moments where the tense immediacy of the action and the story required the actor to ‘go large’.


Life cannot exist without water; we emerge from a watery womb and the liquid continues to sustain us. The many layers in this tale will resonate with audiences, particularly the issue of submerging trauma while we grasp at fast fixes (familiar to many I suspect). Complex and enthralling, I would like to see this work again as it settles into being.


Image Supplied